Marcellus Issues in West Virginia: An Introduction

Waste and Waste Management

This is a huge topic which will be broken up into segments appearing on different pages. We'll first discuss the types of waste and its constituents. We'll then discuss the regulatory framework for West Virginia which determines how this waste is managed. And then we'll discuss problems and specific issues with West Virginia's waste management program.

Types of Waste and Constituents

There are several different waste streams and each is distinctive in its chemical constituents and their concentrations. Unfortunately there's been little study done in this state involving laboratory analysis.

The waste streams are: drill waste (drill fluid and cuttings), hydraulic fracturing waste (flowback fluid, proppant, produced water and/or condensate), condensate (produced water and/or crude petroleum), and, for coalbed methane wells, produced water.

A study conducted by West Virginia University for the Department of Environmental Protection examined horizontal well freshwater impoundments, drill fluids and flowback from a number of sources to determine the constituents. The first part of the study was concluded in early 2013 and is important for understanding the constituents of various waste streams.

Drill Waste

The fluid used for drilling can just be water. More often additions to the fluid are made to help control the well (weighting compounds such as barite), improve the bit's cutting (lubricants), maintain stability of the edge of the drill hole, and to help remove the cuttings. Here's a collection of MSDS for drilling products that were used to drill an Antero horizontal Marcellus well in West Virginia.

The cuttings themselves have chemical constituents related to the formation they are from. Marcellus cuttings, for instance, can contain (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials) NORM and heavy metals. Here's a paper presented to the EPA about heavy metals in Marcellus.

In the 1980s when the Department of Environmental Protection was working on the creation of the Office of Oil and Gas' general permit for managing waste, they sampled 5 drill waste pits and tested for a range of constituents. The tests included a toxicity test which used flathead minnows. Those tests where there was a high mortality are indicated in the document as high toxicity. The Department of Environmental Protection associated toxicity with iron concentrations. It is known, however, that some drilling fluid products, such as biocides, are toxic to flathead minnows.

Hydraulic Fracturing Waste

Hydraulic fracturing waste, flowback, consists of the proppant used (usually sand), methane and other gases from the well, the chemicals from the products used in fracturing the well (along with their breakdown chemicals), and formation liquids (brine and/or crude petroleum).

Chemicals listed on MSDS sheets for products are available for individual wells in West Virginia at the FracFocus web site. The well's API number must be known to get a precise listing, though one can get a general idea by just looking at documents for wells in the state.

The products used are varied. They include gels, gel solvents and crosslinkers. A friction reducer is sometimes used. A biocide is commonly used. Each product will have one or more ingredients possibly listed on a MSDS, though manufacturers don't have to list any constituents they consider "proprietary." The FracFocus disclosure isn't complete.

MSDS have also been collected here for four specific well hydraulic fracturing fluids: the 2008 fracturing of a vertical well by Halliburton; a 2011 fracturing of a horizontal Marcellus well in Upshur county; a 2011 fracturing of a horizontal Marcellus well in Taylor county; and a 2011 fracturing of a horizontal Marcellus well in Wetzel county.

The Department of Environmental Protection sampled, over a period of time, the flowback from a horizontal Marcellus well in Wetzel county. Study of the lab results shows that the constituents and their concentrations shifted over time. The earliest lab results show the chemicals that are found in flowback. As time progressed, the flowback transitioned toward the type of fluid normally produced from a well as condensate, usually a mixture of brine and crude petroleum.


Natural gas wells generally produce liquids during the productive life of the well. These are stored in large tanks on the site and are removed periodically. Crude petroleum and "wet" Marcellus condensate have a value and are sold. Brine is a waste that must be disposed of properly and is an expense for the operator.

Brine, or produced water, is the remnant of ancient seawater that remains far underground. Its constituents vary depending on the source of the brine. Marcellus brines can be extremely salty with an extremely high concentration of chloride. When the Department of Environmental Protection was working on the Office of Oil and Gas' general permit in the 1980s they created a table showing the range of constituents in West Virginia brines.

Produced Water

Produced water can be brine or it can be low salinity water found in some coal formations. Coalbed methane wells, common in West Virginia, pump produced water (which blocks the production of gas) from the well. If the chloride concentration is high, the produced water must be disposed of at a waste facility. If the chloride concentration is low, however, the state allows managed disposal on site through land application of the the fluid.

Go on to examine the state's regulatory framework.


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