WHEELING - After studying seven different natural gas drilling sites in Wetzel, Brooke and Marion counties, Michael McCawley found high levels of cancer-causing benzene being emitted into the air.
McCawley, chairman of the West Virginia University Public School of Health, released the findings of his report titled "Air, Noise, and Light Monitoring Results For Assessing Environmental Impacts of Horizontal Gas Well Drilling Operations" during Friday's Public Health Conference at Oglebay Park. The event was organized by the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department.
McCawley said a similar study is expected to occur in other Northern Panhandle counties, including Ohio, but said this one will also concentrate on air samples related to diesel emissions. The new study will also include long-term health data from local hospitals.
He said the main purpose of his latest study, which was contracted by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, is to provide data to state legislators who will likely use it to write laws related to emissions standards for well pad sites. McCawley added he believes legislators may give the responsibility of crafting the laws or ordinances to counties instead. The study has not yet been presented to the state Legislature, but is available on the state DEP website, he noted.
"There were hydrocarbons (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) found at all the sites. There was only one that was of some concern - a site with a high benzene concentration," McCawley said, referring to the Maury pad in Wetzel County.
McCawley said a normal range of benzene in parts per billion is between 1-30. The level found at the Maury pad was 85 parts per billion. He noted the other sites' benzene levels were more like the type of exposure one would experience while living in a city.
The well pad sites, which were operated by three different companies, were monitored between three and seven days, at different points in the drilling process and included: the Donna pad in Marion County, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources A pad in Brooke County, and the Weekly, Wetzel 2 and 3, Maury and Lemons pads in Wetzel County.
McCawley believes the benzene may have been coming mostly from the diesel trucks, as the truck activity was higher at the Maury site compared to the others.
"Benzene is a carcinogen and causes leukemia," McCawley said. "There is no level at which there is no risk. However, the lower the level, the lower the risk is likely to be. ... In the debates to follow this, people will be talking about this at their own level of subjectivity."
He said sampling should not be done at a specific distance from the well pad sites, such as 625 feet as suggested by legislators, because the activity is occurring in and all around the sites. It should be done in the most sensitive areas.
"That's not the only source of air pollution and noise. The roads leading in and out are also sources of air pollution and noise," McCawley said.
The study also revealed there were no light emission problems; dust levels were above average; noise levels often were above 55 decibels but below the federal EPA's daily long-term level of 70 decibels; and airborne radiation levels were near zero.
"The concern I have with noise and populations is that studies have shown that interfering with sleep, as noise can do, can cause a rise in hypertension," McCawley said. "We have problems with hypertension already here in West Virginia. The levels that can interfere with sleep are above 55 decibels. ... The noise on the pad when they are fracking runs about 120-130 decibels. That's enough to cause serious damage and enough to be painful if not wearing protection."
The data were collected via air monitoring equipment designed by McCawley, who also is associate research professor at the WVU Department of Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences. Data collected by the equipment were checked via computer in Morgantown.