(11/25/2012)
By Bob Weaver

Extractors have not always left a pleasant legacy in the Mountain State.

Since 1977, a government program has provided more than $7 billion to clean up more than 285,000 acres abandoned by coal operators across the USA, including hundreds abandoned by WV operators starting about 1960.

Those companies dodged being responsible for the clean-ups.

See MORE ABANDONED WV STRIP MINES BEING RECLAIMED

In WV, at least 4,500 natural gas wells have not been plugged, abandoned by their owners, and 13,000 wells are on a current list to be plugged since they have not produced for a year.

At rate of plugging old wells, it would take the DEP roughly 300 years to plug the wells.

Wells that go inactive for more than a year are required to be plugged.

"At some point, as the wells age, the casings break down and the concern is that those become a threat to the environment," said Julie Archer, Project Manager for the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

The Office of Oil and Gas through the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is in charge of enforcing that regulation.

"We already have this problem where we have a lot of wells that are unplugged, we don't have a responsible operator," Archer said.

It costs an average of $20,000 to plug a well.

Of those 13,000 wells, more than 4,500 are orphaned. Orphaned wells are registered to unknown operators or operators that are no longer in business.

The DEP pays for those projects through a Reclamation Trust Fund. Operators pay a $100 fee per permit application. But operators can also pay a $50,000 blanket bond.

Archer said there simply aren't enough funds to carry out all of those projects.

"The amount of money in that fund only goes to plug like 10 to 20 wells per year," Archer said.

Right now, that fund is dependent on permit applications. With Marcellus Shale being the trend in permit applications, Archer fears more new wells could also mean more orphaned wells.

"With the Marcellus drilling, a lot of these operators who drilled these conventional wills can't afford to drill Marcellus drills and the problem is just going to get worse. We are going to have more and more wells that fit into that category," Archer said.

Archer also questions what will happen if and when Marcellus wells quit producing.


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