Still no word on Wheeling Park gas well

August 22, 2012

WHEELING, W.Va. - Students and employees at Wheeling Park High School are still waiting to learn if Chesapeake Energy will be drilling for natural gas about 1,300 feet from the building in the upcoming school year.

Although the period for public comment ended several weeks ago - and although Chesapeake's permit application seems to meet all legal requirements established by the West Virginia Legislature - the company still does not have permission to drill a well on this strip of land in the name of the Parks System Trust Fund of Wheeling.

As officials with DEP continue to review this permit, one reason for the delay could be the volume of well applications the agency is receiving because of the Marcellus and Utica shale rush. On an almost daily basis, the agency issues new drilling permits for all areas of the state, including Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel, Brooke, Hancock and Tyler counties.

"We are making gains in reducing the number of pending horizontal permit applications, which had grown because of changes in the industry and an adjustment period on our part," said DEP spokesman Thomas Aluise.

"I can tell you we continue to reduce the amount of time it is taking to review horizontal permit applications, assuming the applications are complete and meet all requirements. Those that aren't complete often have to be sent back to the applicant, which adds time to the review process."

Aluise said right now, it is taking the DEP about 96 days - including time for the applicants to make required modifications - to review and issue horizontal well permits.

"Ultimately we hope to get that closer to 60 days, but not at the expense of quality reviews," he said.

Chesapeake - the only horizontal driller and fracker with active operations in Ohio, Brooke or Hancock counties - now has more than 40 well sites in some stages of development throughout Ohio County. Companies working on behalf of Chesapeake and its affiliates are also building a pipeline network through the county to transport the gas from the wells.

The land on which Chesapeake seeks to drill this particular well is owned by the Parks System Trust Fund of Wheeling. This Chesapeake lease is signed by members of the Wheeling Park Commission, which oversees the operations of the Oglebay Resort and Wheeling Park. Commission attorney James Gardill said these two bodies are officially separate.

Park Commission President and Chief Executive Officer J. Douglas Dalby has said the drilling issues must be resolved by the school, Chesapeake and the Wheeling-Ohio County emergency Management Agency. The well's 1,300-foot distance from the school is more than twice the legal limit for wells to be located from a "occupied dwelling," as required by the Legislature. However, officials with Ohio County Schools, the Ohio County Commission and Wheeling City Council have passed formal resolutions objecting to the drilling, with the school district submitting the comments to the DEP. The school board also appealed directly to DEP Secretary Randy Huffman in an effort to stop the well.

These organizations got additional support in the form of about 20 individual objections filed by residents to the DEP to try to prevent the well site from being located near the school. Some filed more than one objection. More than 310 people also signed an online petition to stop the well. Chesapeake spokeswoman Jacque Bland said the company would have no further comment on the matter this week. Company officials previously noted they would have more to say on the matter, once they receive the permit.