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No clear answers to local "fracking" questions

Over the past year, many questions have arisen concerning the Marcellus gas well at Normantown. From the huge water storage tanks at Stumptown to the small earthquakes that have awakened nearby residents, folks in the area would just like to know how the well is progressing.

Since the beginning of the year, this editor has been in regular contact with Stacey Brodak, Community and Media Relations Manager for Noble Energy, the company that was in charge of drilling the well. Questions about water usage and disposal were asked, as well as questions concerning the air quality around the nearby Normantown Elementary School.

When the water tanks were set at Stumptown, it was asked where they would get the water to fill them. Brodak replied that they tried to use recycled water whenever possible. Several months later, she did say that they took the water from the Left Fork of Steer Creek.

The water level in the tanks never went down throughout the entire summer, then just before Thanksgiving, the tanks were emptied and removed. This prompted another inquiry to Noble Energy.

It was asked at that time, how much water was removed from the creek during the course of the fracking operation and what was done with the "dirty" water?

On Fri., Dec. 20, a response was finally submitted which stated the following: "We have completed three wells on the Normantown No. 1 Pad. The fresh water accumulated from Steer Creek and stored in temporary, above-ground storage tanks was used during the completion phase.

"All water sourcing was compliant with our water management plan as outlined and approved in our permit to the WV Department of Environmental Protection. The temporary tanks are no longer needed and were removed.

"Noble Energy is committed to reusing any produced water that returns to the surface from the well bore. We continue to analyze results and evaluate future operations."

While this is a "typical" industry response, it says nothing of substance regarding the question.

It's pretty much common knowledge, now, that hydraulic fracturing requires several million gallons of water, the exact amount depending on the specifics of individual wells. Noble was unwilling or unable to provide a more precise number, but they are certainly within the law.

According to Jason Harmon, Environmental Resources Analyst for the WV DEP's Division of Water and Waste Management, gas and oil operators have a year to report their water usage. Furthermore, he indicated that "Noble Energy has not yet reported their disposal data for wells on the NORM No. 1 well pad."

The removal of the water storage tanks does signal that the fracking has been completed. The continued construction of the compressor station at Lockney seems to be an indicator that there will be gas to move in the area. But, why is Noble reluctant to respond?

Brodak commented, "As for speculation about well results - I would suggest you reach to the companies involved in stations and pipelines. Another option for you is WVONGA (West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association).... I assume these facilities would service multiple developers, so an industry response would be most appropriate."

She went on to say, "Should we decide to continue with additional site development in the area, we would host a meeting for landowners near those locations. I also believe that since you have multiple companies working in the area, maybe a group public meeting could be organized by someone where all operators/vendors could participate. I would participate in one that was organized through the college, trade association or 4H Extension Office."

Normantown residents have heard that before. After a crowd of over 100 people gathered in the local school gym to hear from speakers familiar with fracking and the concerns associated with it, County Commissioner Darrel Ramsey told them Ñ according to his understanding Ñ that Noble Energy was planning a public meeting of their own to answer questions and give out information.

That meeting never took place, but Ramsey was just repeating what he had been told by Brodak. The commissioners and first responders, among others, were also promised a tour of the well site last fall. That never came to fruition, either.

Noble's approach is hard to understand, some residents think. According to a 22 page Power Point brochure provided by Brodak back in the spring, Noble is "Responsible. By Design." It states that they "proactively engage with local communities." In a full page advertisement they ran in Nov. of 2012, Noble says they are "committed to maintaining a culture that fosters transparency and accountability for the way we conduct business." This doesn't seem to be the case in regards to the Normantown well.

Granted, businesses don't have to reveal to the public the intricacies of their operations. There are things to consider, such as industry secrets in the ingredients of the fracking fluid and not letting the competition know you are onto something big.

Talking with the public and being honest about how their natural resources are being used doesn't seem to be too risky.

From the beginning, this newspaper's intentions were to educate people about the industry, help them to understand it and see how it differs from the traditional gas well drilling we've seen in West Virginia. With each communication, however, it has seemed like clear answers were just not available. A person gets the feeling that he or she is just being put off until the project is completed.

Many people are happy about the development and increased revenue for local businesses, not to mention an opportunity for a good paying job. Gilmer County can surely use the economic boost.

By not giving straight answers to seemingly simple questions though, suspicions will continue to grow.