Tuesday, September 06, 2011

TOP STORY >> Gas pollution poses danger, report claims

Leader staff writer

The state agency charged with protecting the public from pollution caused by the natural-gas industry isn’t doing a very good job, according to a report released Tuesday by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

The report is based on an analysis of Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality’s records of inspections of all facets of the industry between July 2006 and August 2010.

Northwestern White County has several gas wells and a drilling waste reclamation plant in the Opal community between Beebe and El Paso.

Although the drilling area does not extend into Lonoke County, the county does have waste-disposal sites, such as the land farm near Carlisle.

The Arkansas Public Policy Panel is a statewide tax-exempt organization that supports the efforts of citizen groups around the state by linking them with one another in networks and coalitions to bring balance to public policy.

The report was released one week before a group of bills intended to better regulate the natural-gas industry is discussed by a state legislative committee.

Bill Kopsky, Arkansas Public Policy Panel executive director, said Tuesday that the report “sheds a lot of light on problems we think are ongoing.”

Kopsky said the goal is to make state regulations more stringent and increase enforce ment to protect the environment, and not run the natural gas industry out of the state.

State Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) was among a group of legislators who opposed environmental bills during the last session. Dismang said Tuesday evening that he hadn’t yet read the report, but that he was fairly certain its release was timed to coincide with the discussion of the bills next week.

Dismang said that overall the believes the ADEQ does a good job. If there are problems they might need more inspectors, he said adding, “I’m not sure passing more laws will help.”

State Rep. Jeremy Gilliam (R-Judsonia) joined with Dismang in opposing the bills for more regulation of the gas industry.

He said Tuesday evening that he hadn’t seen the study and therefore couldn’t comment on its exact content. ADEQ might need more inspectors, but he said, “I think they’ve done a pretty good job with the resources they have.”

The report says in part that violations of the state’s clean water standards are widespread and that inspections are infrequent and driven by complaints. The companies that work in the field don’t follow their own best management practices.

Operators don’t report violations as required by state law and that often state inspectors don’t make follow-up inspections after complaints have been filed to ensure that corrections are made.

An earlier report said there are 7,000 gas wells now in the Fayetteville shale and 14,000 more are anticipated.

The report released Tuesday said significant pollution issues were contained in three-quarters of the inspections with violations and that in the four-year period only 538 inspections were conducted. In that same time, only two operators voluntarily reported violations.

Of the 538 inspections, 86 were in White County and nine were in Lonoke County.

Missing from the inspection reports were information about corrective measures or any penalties against the operators. Also missing was evidence of ADEQ follow-up inspections. Of the 500 plus inspections conducted, only nine files showed any later inspections to ensure corrective measures were taken, the report said.

Four more inspectors were added in 2011 but they are mostly relegated to wells on Arkansas Game and Fish lands where the rules are stricter than on private land, the report said.

The following recommendations are in the report:

“ADEQ should inspect each well site, compressor station, pipeline, injection well site, land farm and other industry facility at least once annually. Every violation should trigger mandatory followup inspections and increased inspections of the violators’ other facilities within the state.

“Repeat violations should result in revocation of permits and a ban on future permits to operate,” the report said.