News Analysis: DEP Studies Air Near Marcellus Operations

President Obama says he sees gas development as an issue where Democrats could work with Republicans. Environmental and citizens groups, though, have expressed concern about drilling's potential impacts on roads, water and now--air. Pennsylvania has just released results from a short-term air monitoring study of some Marcellus Shale operations. The Allegheny Front's news analyst Ann Murray talks with host Jennifer Szweda Jordan about the survey.

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Last week's elections will likely usher in more business-friendly politics. Republicans and Democrats have been speaking in support of the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling industry. †News reports said GOP strategist Karl Rove told gas developers gathered for a conference in Pittsburgh that they don't "need to worry" that the new Congress will consider federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing. And the New York Times reported that President Obama said he sees gas development as an issue on which he could compromise with Republicans. The gas industry, is, of course, pleased with Obama's remarks.

Environmental and citizens groups, though, have expressed concern about drilling's potential impacts on roads, water and now--air. Pennsylvania has just released results from a short-term air monitoring study of some Marcellus Shale operations.

Ann, what's the background on this survey?

MURRAY: The Department of Environmental Protection began its study in southwestern PA where 40 percent of Marcellus wells have been drilled.The DEP's report is based on air quality sampling done over the course of five weeks in Greene and Washington counties.

JORDAN: Where the locations of the samples they collected?

MURRAY: The agency focused on ambient air pollution levels near two different compressor stations. †This is where raw gas is piped from wells so the gas can be pre-treated and compressed. Emissions can come from several places -- from diesel engines that run the compressors, and emissions from compression equipment, pipes and tanks are all sources. The researchers also took samples from tanks where brines and other volatile organic compounds settle out from the gas, a wastewater pond and a site where there were no drilling activities.

JORDAN: Ann, I've seen the film "Gasland," which shows sprayers shooting wastewater into the air over uncovered ponds in shale drilling out West, and I know there's concern about contaminants drifting into the air that that what's happening here?

MURRAY: Ponds are uncovered and compounds from the frack water off-gas or dissipate into†the air.

JORDAN: Did this study survey air quality at a well pad when drilling or fracturing was taking place or when a gas well was flared before production?

MURRAY: No, it didn't but the DEP says later surveys might include these stages of the gas drilling process.

JORDAN: What pollutants was the agency testing for?

MURRAY: The DEP tested for concentrations of a target list of pollutants associated with gas drilling. They collected samples to screen for approximately 48 volatile organic compounds including methane and benzene. And sampled for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and ozone, some of the pollutants covered under National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

JORDAN: And what did the DEP find? †

MURRAY: Short-term sampling detected concentrations of certain natural gas components including methane, ethane and propane, and associated compounds like benzene, in the air near these Marcellus Shale drilling operations. Most of the compounds were detected during short-term sampling at the two compressor stations in Greene and Washington counties.

JORDAN: There have been complaints about rotten egg smells around compressor stations. Did the DEP study detect compounds that would account for that kind of odor?

MURRAY: †Methyl mercaptan was picked up at levels that could produce that kind of smell.

JORDAN: Aside from smell, did the agency identify concentrations of any compound that would trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling?

MURRAY: The report says no but it is a qualified no.

JORDAN: What do you mean?

MURRAY: Because of the limited scope and duration of the sampling and the small number of sources and facilities sampled, the findings only represent conditions at the time of the sampling and don't represent a comprehensive study of emissions. That means this short-term sampling effort doesn't address the cumulative impact of air emissions from natural gas operations in southwestern Pennsylvania.

JORDAN: So the DEP doesn't know if the air quality around these operations will make anyone sick?

MURRAY: Right now, no. The lifetime cancer risk wasn't calculated since the sampling period in this study was short term. Typically, a sampling period of at least one year is necessary for a lifetime cancer risk analysis. The DEP report says over time, "combined effects from many of these operations in an area, along with other sources, may exceed or violate National Ambient Air Quality Standards." That would mean that carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone had exceeded safe levels.

JORDAN: The Marcellus gas industry is referencing this study. New industry press releases say the DEP air quality data have shown that the air around Marcellus gas operations isn't going to harm human health. It sounds as though their claims are premature.

MURRAY: The DEP sees this first survey as a way to see what air pollutants are out there. The agency is now conducting similar short term studies in central and northern Pennsylvania where Marcellus drilling is going on. The agency says it wants to compare and contrast studies and decide what parameters they will need to decide if there are cumulative impacts from Marcellus production.

JORDAN: Thanks, Ann.