GREENWOOD — Large cranes loom over the rolling hills just off Sunnyside Road. The tip of a large industrial tank and the steel skeleton of a building peek over the treeline along U.S. 50 near the Doddridge-Ritchie County line. Construction crews crowd the narrow road that winds up the hill from the four-lane, as workers push forward on a $275 million, two-year effort to complete what Antero Resources has dubbed “Clearwater.”
Antero officials say their new major complex — including a water treatment plant and adjacent landfill — will help solve a nagging problem faced by its natural gas operations across Appalachia: Getting enough water for gas drilling and then disposing of that water once it is contaminated with salts from underground mineral deposits and chemicals used to help release the gas from the region’s Marcellus Shale formation.
“This significantly improves the safety and reduces the environmental impact of shale development by removing hundreds of thousands of water truckloads from the roads every year, and recycles and reuses the water rather than dispose of it,” Antero CEO Paul Rady said when the project was announced a little more than a year ago.
But in the months since that announcement, residents near the project site and in the surrounding communities have become increasingly wary.
Some residents have simple questions, like whether a new stoplight eventually will be installed at the intersection where the plant is being built. Others aren’t convinced that the water treatment facility will really remove some of the most potentially dangerous contamination — metals and radioactive materials — from the water from Antero’s natural gas production activities.
Still other critics of Antero’s plan worry that installing such a huge piece of industrial infrastructure simply furthers the state’s ties to another polluting fossil fuel industry, hindering any effort to make West Virginia a state that thrives on renewable energy production.
“There’s been strong community interest about this significant project coming to Doddridge and Ritchie counties,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, which has been working with the local Friends of the Hughes River Watershed Association to help educate the public about the project and open dialogue between Antero and the community.
Last week, the two citizen groups hosted a community meeting on the project. About 50 people gathered in Harrisville, at the Women’s Club Center on Main Street, a few miles west of the construction site. Representatives from Antero attended. So did someone from the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Environmental Advocate, which works to help citizens be better heard and understood during DEP’s review of permit applications for projects like Antero has proposed.
Conrad Baston, Antero’s project manager, explained why he and his company believe that the water treatment plant and the landfill are such good ideas.
“It’s a centralized way of dealing with this waste, trying to compress this issue into as small a package as you can,” Baston said.
Today’s natural gas industry requires huge amounts of water. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, pumps water and chemicals underground under high pressure to release gas from rock. When the water comes back up, it still has some of those chemicals in it, and it has picked up other contamination, salts and other materials from underground.
The whole process presents obvious problems: Where will all that water come from, especially during dry months when streams are low? What will companies do with all that contaminated water that comes back up?
Previously, companies have just pumped whatever water they needed from area streams. Water and wastewater pits were built — sometimes not always that safely — right at the well sites. Wastewater sometimes was taken to local treatment plants, which weren’t really designed for such materials, or was pumped back underground someplace else.
Those underground injection wells have drawn increasing scrutiny, sometimes because they might be leaking, and others because scientists have found underground injection causes earthquakes.
Antero’s project would change all that, Baston said. Wastewater produced at the company’s wells would be trucked to the treatment plant, where it would be cleaned of salts and other contaminants. The water could then be reused at other gas wells. Salts would be disposed of at an adjacent landfill. Material with other contaminants would be hauled by train to some other dump somewhere else, probably in Utah or Idaho. No more on-site waste pits. No more underground injection wells. Less truck traffic.
“As an engineer, I just see this problem that I’m trying to compress into a smaller and smaller footprint,” Baston told residents.
That description, though, didn’t sit well with Lissa Lucas, who lives a few miles west of the project.
“I wonder if you recognize that what you regard as a problem or an obstacle to making profits is different than what someone who lives nearby regards as a problem,” Lucas said. For example, Lucas said, “You may be saying there’s only 10 houses affected, but if you live in one of those houses, that’s a big deal.”
The scale of the Antero project alone has many residents worried. Located on a nearly 500-acre site, the landfill would accept 2,000 tons of salt per day, according to a Rivers Coalition fact sheet. Environmental groups also note that the landfill project alone would bury more than 5 miles of streams.
Antero officials like to point out that, overall, the facility — especially with an adjacent landfill that eliminates having to ship the salt for off-site disposal — actually helps to greatly reduce truck traffic related to the company’s operations. But residents worry that the treatment plan, by processing 60,000 barrels per day of wastewater, creates one giant, congested industrial site.
“You’re consolidating,” said one resident, who didn’t give his name. “What you’re consolidating is the problem — right on top of us.”
For some residents in places like Doddridge and Ritchie counties, West Virginia’s natural gas boom has brought with it not only concerns about water quality, but what one local sheriff has called an “invasion” of truck traffic, along with constant noise and light and localized air pollution concerns.
Lyn Scott Bordo, a sixth generation Ritchie County resident, said that the noise from a natural gas compressor station that started up near her home ended her ability to even have a conversation while sitting on her porch in the evenings.
Residents especially are resentful toward Antero. They note repeated water pollution problems and workplace incidents that left workers hurt or dead. And Antero is the main company targeted by hundreds of residents who have filed lawsuits over truck traffic, mountains of dust, constant heavy equipment noise and bright lights that shine into their homes day and night.
Kevin Ellis, an Antero vice president, reminded residents who brought up such issues during last week’s meeting that a lot of their neighbors work for Antero and its many contracting companies, and that those neighbors do their best every day to operate safely and to minimize any negative effects from the company’s operations.
“We take seriously our obligation to do right,” Ellis said.
Still, residents and environmental groups have a variety of questions about the finer details of Antero’s plan.
For example, the company proposes to permit its landfill as a non-commercial facility — one that would take only Antero’s own waste — a move that avoids dealing with siting review by the local solid waste authority, which is required for commercial operations under the state’s decades-old law aimed at reducing out-of-state garbage. But Antero officials also talk about the possibility that they might accept and treat wastewater from other natural gas producers at the Clearwater facility, and then dispose of the salt from that treatment at the landfill, under the theory that the salt becomes internal to Antero when it comes out of the treatment facility.
Also, residents worry that they don’t yet have enough information about exactly how the treatment plant would ensure that only the salts, and not other contaminants like metals or radioactive materials, would be kept out of the landfill. In written comments submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection, a coalition of environmental groups noted that the project is located so that spills or leaks or other discharges could affect the drinking water supply for the Hughes River Water Board, which provides water to Pennsboro, Harrisville and Cairo.
The groups complained that the company’s permit applications have not described these potential impacts or any steps that would be taken to avoid them. Antero says its landfill has many layers of protections to avoid any water contamination, but residents and others are concerned that there’s no way to absolutely guarantee any such system is foolproof.
“Landfills leak,” said Kendra Hatcher, an environmental scientist who has been examining the project for the Morgantown-based environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies. “It might not be a big, catastrophic event, but landfills leak, so there is a legitimate concern for the groundwater.”
Compounding the concerns for local residents is the fact that while the DEP is still reviewing permit applications from Antero — and asking members of the public for their comments on those applications — construction has not only started, but appears from what residents can see to be fairly well along.
Jane Hearne, of Ritchie County, wondered aloud at last week’s meeting if approval by DEP of the project’s permits isn’t a “done deal ... when you see the [construction] process is already underway.”
Residents who worry about the politics underlying such projects and their review by state agencies were greeted at last week’s meeting with promotional material from Antero that included a quote from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in which the governor praised the company and its project as “good for the environment and good for West Virginia’s economy.” That quote appeared in Antero’s press release announcing the project, with approval from the governor’s office, Tomblin communications director Jessica Tice said last week.
Antero already has a construction and operation permit for the treatment facility and a construction stormwater permit, issued by separate divisions of DEP. The company still needs several other DEP approvals, including an air quality permit for the landfill, a draft of which was issued for public comment on the day of last week’s public meeting in Harrisville.
The process, with separate permits under separate laws, rules and programs — and divisions of DEP — has been confusing for residents, even setting aside the issue of whether, with a facility already being built, a review of other permit applications is no more than an academic exercise for agency officials and citizens.
For example, as late as December 2015, when the DEP Division of Air Quality issued the treatment plant’s air permit, residents who asked questions about the company’s landfill plans were told by the agency that Antero hadn’t submitted a landfill permit application and that the company had told DEP only that “they are exploring this option, but no decision has been made yet.” The application was submitted a month later.
Some residents complained during the air permit comment period that their community is “already besieged by the gas industry — well pads, diesel truck traffic, compressor stations, pipelines, and major processing facilities ... [that] already emit toxic substances into our air. We who choose the fresh air, clean water, and quiet of country life find these destroyed.”
DEP officials responded that they are “aware of the increased activity in the oil and gas industry as it pertains to horizontal drilling in the Marcellus Shale.”
“The increase in drilling activity has created new challenges with maintaining healthy air, water and land usage,” the DEP Division of Air Quality said. “Air quality issues associated with the oil and gas sector are an expanding aspect of the DAQ’s regulatory responsibilities.”
John King, of the DEP Office of Environmental Advocate, told residents last week that the agency doesn’t allow housing developers to segment their projects into small pieces to avoid having to get stormwater construction permits, and that some sort of “common plan of permitting” is something DEP could consider and residents could encourage the agency to employ when they submit public comments on the Antero project.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said last week that he doesn’t recall a situation with a major project where his agency has ever “lumped all of the permits together and required all of the permits before you can do anything.” Such an approach, Huffman said, probably would only be relevant to citizens who view the permit process as a “thumbs up or thumbs down” on a project, as opposed to an opportunity for the public to point out things DEP permit reviewers may have missed or ways the agency could improve a project’s air or water permits.
Huffman said his agency’s job is not to decide whether a particular activity — such as natural gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing — is allowed. Lawmakers and governors set such policies, and DEP enforces them, Huffman said.
“We’re not there to make policy decisions about whether some activity should occur or should not occur,” Huffman said. “The presumption with any permitting action is, if all of the requirements are met, then you will be issued the permit.”
When lawmakers passed and Tomblin signed a 2011 law aimed at better regulating oil and gas drilling, they weakened some provisions of it that would have provided more protections for residents near gas production operations. State officials said they would study those issues and could come back to them later.
The studies were done, and recommended more protections, but the law hasn’t been updated based on the findings. Instead, environmental and citizen groups have had to spend their time beating back legislative proposals aimed at lessening controls on drilling and blocking citizen lawsuits against companies like Antero.
It all creates a tough situation for residents confronted with permit applications for operations like the one Antero has planned for Doddridge and Ritchie counties, or already living with the realities of large-scale natural gas production in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale region. They feel like a big part of the discussion is left out of the public hearings and comment periods DEP encourages them to take part in, and permit decisions are made without looking at the whole picture of a project or industry.
Rosser, the Rivers Coalition director, said that the Antero project should be “part of a broader discussion of where we are going with energy production. This infrastucture we see, with projects like this and pipelines, the more we are setting ourselves up for that future with more and more waste and not moving toward renewables.”
And as for Antero’s specific plan, Rosser recalled what one resident at last week’s meeting said as the event was breaking up: That it was good that Antero officials were trying to come up with a solution for the wastewater problem, but that, “what underlies that is that they created the problem in the first place.”