CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Department of Environmental Protection has set May 31 as the deadline for extinguishing a flare that has been burning gases from three Nicholas County Marcellus Shale exploration wells for more than six months, despite state laws limiting natural gas flaring to 30 days per year. Dallas-based Bluescape Resources Co. began flaring gas from three Marcellus wells near Fenwick on Aug. 28 last year. Responding to citizen complaints about the prolonged flaring, mainly from the newly formed organization Stand Up Now, the DEP's Division of Air Quality inspected the Fenwick area site on Oct. 12 and issued BRC a notice of violation Oct. 26. On Nov. 14, in a response to the violation notice, company officials said BRC had to flare the natural gas produced by the wells since "no pipeline exists in the area" to collect and transport the gas. Lacking a pipeline, gas from the wells had to be released, measured and burned "to test the viability of the natural gas reserves in the area," they said. A pipeline linking the Richwood area to Frametown is being planned. The company response went on to state that BRC could not "shut in the wells or the flare without suffering irreparable financial damage." The Fenwick area wells "are generating data on natural gas reserves in a portion of the state that has previously not been tested. The information being generated is crucial not only to BRC but to the mineral owners and other lessees in the area." BRC maintained in its response letter that prior to installing the wells, the company consulted with the DEP's Office of Oil and Gas about flaring plans at the Fenwick site, and was told that no permits were needed. In late November, the company filed a request for a temporary permit to continue operating the flare. On Dec. 7, a meeting was held with Division of Air Quality personnel to discuss the permit and resolve the notice of violation. On Dec. 15, the DAQ sent BRC a Notice of Deficiency letter seeking more information from the company in order to process the temporary permit. In the recently released consent order, dated Feb. 22, BRC agreed, among other things, to convert the flare from a vertical to a horizontal configuration, to monitor for visible emissions, and to cease operating the flare "on or before combusting a total of 1,321 million standard cubic feet, or no later than May 31, 2012, whichever is sooner." BRC also agreed to pay an administrative penalty of $50,000 to resolve all DAQ violations. BRC's permit application lists maximum possible hourly emissions from the flare as 35,163 pounds of carbon dioxide and 110 pounds of carbon monoxide. "I'm glad to know that the state has established a limit" regarding how long natural gas flares are allowed to burn, said Stephanie Hamilton, among those opposing the continued flaring of the Fenwick wells. Hamilton said she would like to see BRC's fine money be used to add a Richwood-area air quality monitoring station to the Division of Air Quality's current network of 23 monitoring sites across the state. The nearest station to the Fenwick wells is found at Sam Black Church in Greenbrier County, "many miles and several mountains away," she said. With 13 Marcellus wells under permit in the Richwood area, and 12 in the vicinity of Craigsville, and up to 10 wells possible per drilling pad, "the potential for hundreds of new wells and new flares is possible in Nicholas County," Hamilton said. Hamilton said state law allows for fines of up to $250,000 per well for the nonpermitted flaring done by BRC. "I wonder how the DEP justified a $50,000 fine," she said. Hamilton said the orange glow from the flare can be seen from Richwood and Craigsville at night, particularly during overcast conditions. Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.