WHEELING - West Virginia University and the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department are gathering data to determine if drilling for natural gas impacts the local air quality.
"We want to eventually be able to look at whether there are health effects that are associated with living near a Marcellus (shale) gas drilling site while it's in operation," said Michael McCawley, chairman of the West Virginia University School of Public Health.
In numerous legal advertisements over the past year, driller Chesapeake Energy confirmed the company has the "potential to discharge" various amounts of the following materials - both from its well sites and from the compressor stations at Battle Run and Sand Hill - into the Ohio County air: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, formaldehyde and nitrogen oxides.
TESTING — Somu Chatterjee, left, of the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department and Michael McCawley of West Virginia University test a photoionization detector. - Tyler Reynard
For their study, officials are relying on photoionization detectors, which monitor organic compounds in the air. Some people residing near well pads in Ohio County have volunteered to participate in the study by allowing the instruments to be placed on their property.
The detectors already are in place at a few sites in the county, and organizers soon will add a few more. The equipment will be moved to different locations throughout the county over the next six months to ensure the results are comprehensive.
"One of the questions we need to ask from this is, 'How close is close?'" McCawley said. "We really don't know the answer to that at this stage."
McCawley said the process of selecting where to place the instruments was a "complex issue." Study organizers considered wind direction and topography and sought locations with a clear path between the measurement instruments and active well sites.
The instruments also would assist natural gas companies in monitoring any emissions being produced from their well sites, McCawley pointed out. He added local companies have been very cooperative with the initial phases of the study.
"They think they're doing a good job," he said of the gas companies. "This is one way, in fact, that they can show everybody. The data will tell you whether you're doing a good job or whether you're not."