With the help of county-level officials, researchers at West Virginia University (WVU) continue to press ahead with an air quality study at Marcellus drilling sites across the state, finding elevated levels of benzene in the air that they claim are of concern.

The analysis began in 2011 as part of research commissioned by the state legislature, which passed the Natural Gas Horizontal Well Control Act that year. Much of that research was completed this year and submitted to the legislature in three short-term studies addressing air quality in the state.

Over the summer, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which collaborated on the research with WVU, told state legislators that, for the time being, no additional requirements were needed to protect the air from horizontal oil and gas drilling (see Shale Daily, July 8).

Despite that assessment, WVU’s Department of Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences is choosing to continue gauging levels of hazardous pollutants near drilling sites across the northern part of the state, with equipment purchased by the DEP and others it has designed or obtained on its own to measure volatile organic compounds such as benzene.

“This is a research project, as a county health department we have certain duties and legal responsibilities — this is not one of them,” said Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department Administrator Howard Gamble. “This is what we’ve been seeing all over the state — higher levels of contamination — whether it’s benzene or methane. It’s also likely what’s being seen all over the country. The issue of benzene was raised with the DEP and it’s more than likely the result of activities other than drilling.”

Though benzene is slowly being replaced by other additives in drilling solutions as a solvent for drilling and cleaning grease off rigs, researchers have focused on its presence in water more than they have in air, as a result. The substance is a carcinogen, formed by natural processes and human activities. It is among the top-20 chemicals produced in the U.S., and it is widely used in multiple industries. It is also a natural part of crude oil and gasoline.

In high doses, benzene is considered harmful to humans, but to what extent its concentration near drilling sites is affecting public health in West Virginia is a matter of debate. Gamble said truck traffic and equipment at drilling sites is the likely culprit.

He added researchers hope to influence state regulators to reconsider the state’s setback law, which requires the center of a well pad to be placed at 625 feet from any nearby dwelling.

“That setback rule might not be correct now. You may have a road a mile or a few hundred yards from a house where there’s heavy truck traffic and the law might not be providing adequate protection,” Gamble said.

Regulators did mention reconsidering the state’s setback rules in its recommendations to lawmakers, but Renu Chakrabarty, the air toxics coordinator at the DEP’s Division of Air Quality, told NGI’s Shale Daily that regulators are not involved in WVU’s ongoing efforts, nor does the department have access to any of the university’s new findings.

“We need to know that the data gathering is good, in other words, as a regulatory agency, if they don’t meet quality standards, it’s hard to act on versus what we might commission,” Chakrabarty said. “By my impression, this is more of an indicator study.”

The well control act passed by an overwhelming majority in 2011 (see Shale Daily, Dec. 27, 2011). The state’s first horizontal well was drilled in 2008, and the law sought to update oil and gas regulations by addressing public health concerns, air quality inspections, well classifications and permitting fees, among other things.

“We needed to update the rules and regulations and catch up with the pace of development,” said DEP spokesman Tom Aluise, who added that the state’s oil and gas laws are still evolving today.

Chakrabarty said although the DEP made recommendations to the state legislature concerning air quality improvements, it did not feel the need to push for new rules and regulations.

“What we saw in the studies that were completed were low benzene values,” she said. “There were few instances of elevated readings that were not long-term. These operations are high-intensity, but they don’t match the long-term health benchmarks.”

She said the DEP believes that some operators are one step ahead of pollution mitigation efforts in West Virginia, using sound barriers to break down air flow and mufflers on compressor engines that have catalysts to reduce air emissions. She said the DEP was encouraging other operators to use such equipment. As more operators switch to dual-fuel equipment that runs on natural gas, Chakrabarty said that will help as well.

Still, exploration and production is occurring at a steady pace in the state (see Shale Daily, Nov. 27), especially in the north. Gamble said air quality conditions will remain a concern for many as more drilling occurs near residential areas.

“There’s an abundance of activity here. As far as getting along with citizens, like any other industry, oil and gas has its issues, but things are going pretty smoothly,” Gamble said. “There are still justifiable public concerns, though, and that’s why we’re here gathering samples on the air and water quality.”