Comprehensive Report on Fracking Close to WV Communities

by Duane Nichols on September 6, 2017

See the house? From

In Everyone’s Backyard: Assessing Proximity of Fracking to Communities At-Risk in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale

Comprehensive Report by Evan Hansen, Lara Cushing, Meghan Betcher, Christian Thomas

Downstream Strategies, 911 Greenbag Road, Morgantown, WV 26508

Publication Date: August 15, 2017

Executive Summary

In the past decade, natural gas drilling and extraction from the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia has grown rapidly. The technique of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has allowed for the extraction of gas from areas that were previously uneconomic. Further, in comparison with conventional gas wells, the impacts of fracking are also potentially much greater. Fracking requires the construction of large wellpads—often home to multiple wells drilled over a few years—and produces large amounts of solid and liquid waste containing toxic chemicals. In recent years, the public health and medical communities have expressed concerns about environmental issues and the potential for adverse human health impacts in communities located near fracking activities.

In this study, we explore whether gas production has become more common near places essential for everyday life in West Virginia, increasing the potential for human exposure to contaminants associated with drilling and natural gas extraction. First, we map and measure the footprint of Marcellus Shale gas development in West Virginia between 2007 and 2014 to evaluate the extent to which drilling has expanded near sensitive land uses such as homes and schools. Most prior studies of the growth of unconventional gas extraction have utilized point location information from permit data rather than polygons. Our approach using aerial imagery more accurately reflects the actual timing and aerial extent of wellpad development. Second, we characterize the toxicity of a set of chemicals used to frack wells near sensitive populations to better understand the potential for harmful exposures.

Marcellus Shale development in West Virginia

The footprint of gas extraction in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale has grown substantially. The average size of wellpads grew from 1.6 to 2.4 acres between 2007 and 2014, and the average size of wastewater impoundments—structures for storing liquid waste—grew from 0.1 to 1.3 acres. The total land area covered by wellpads and impoundments grew from 12 to 1,286 acres. Compared with other West Virginia counties, wellpads occupy the most land in Marshall, Wetzel, and Doddridge counties.

Proximity of Marcellus Shale development to sensitive areas

Over time, an increasing amount of Marcellus Shale fracking-related infrastructure has been located near sensitive areas, including homes, schools, public drinking water intakes, public lands, and health care facilities.

  • Homes. 7,235 homes were located within one-half mile of at least one wellpad in 2014. West Virginia State Code specifies a setback distance of 625 feet between the center of wellpads and homes; however, homeowners may waive this setback, and several homes are located closer than this distance to wellpads.
  • Schools. In 2007, the closest wellpad was 0.9 miles from a school. By 2014, seven schools had at least one wellpad within one-half mile, 36 schools had at least one wellpad within one mile, and six schools had two or more wellpads within one mile. West Virginia State Code does not specify a setback distance for construction of wellpads near schools, nor does it specify setback distances for public lands or health care facilities.
  • Public drinking water intakes. West Virginia State Code specifies that wellpads must be more than 1,000 feet from a public drinking water intake; however, the Code does not restrict the construction of wellpads within drinking water protection areas such as zones of critical concern or zones of peripheral concern. In 2014, 30 wellpads and seven impoundments were located within zones of critical concern, and 532 wellpads and 17 impoundments were located within zones of peripheral concern.
  • Public lands. In 2007, no wellpads or impoundments existed within two miles of public land boundaries. By 2014, 21 wellpads and five impoundments had been developed within this distance of public lands.
  • Health care facilities. In 2007, only three wellpads and three impoundments were located within two miles of a health care facility; by 2014, 81 wellpads and 21 impoundments were located less than two miles from at least one health care facility.

Chemicals used at fracking sites in close proximity to sensitive sites

Our ability to characterize the potential health threats posed by fracking in West Virginia is limited by the lack of disclosure and monitoring related to the chemicals used at fracking sites, as well as limited data on the health effects of many of the chemicals being used. Nevertheless, a systematic, screening-level evaluation of the toxicity of chemicals self-reported to the FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry revealed that several hazardous substances have been used in West Virginia to frack wells near schools and within zones of critical concern for surface public drinking water intakes.

  • Schools. Thirty percent of wellpads located within one kilometer of a school reported their chemical usage to the FracFocus database, and 59 different chemicals were used between July 2013 and March 2016. Twenty percent of these 59 chemicals have been identified as possible reproductive and/or developmental toxicants, and one has been identified as a probable human carcinogen.
  • Public drinking water intakes. Twenty percent of the 177 wellpads located within zones of critical concern for drinking water supplies reported their chemical usage to the FracFocus database, and 98 different chemicals were used between May 2013 and March 2016. Nineteen percent of these chemicals could be identified as possible reproductive and/or developmental toxicants, and two are probable or likely human carcinogens.


As the extent of fracking has grown since 2007, fracking infrastructure—wellpads and impoundments—has encroached on places essential for everyday life in West Virginia. Roughly one-fifth of the chemicals being used to frack Marcellus Shale wells close to schools and public drinking water intakes are possible reproductive and/or developmental toxicants or human carcinogens. Most operators are not voluntarily disclosing the chemicals they use, and toxicity information is unavailable for many of the chemicals used at fracking sites, limiting our ability to evaluate the potential health threats posed by fracking in the area.

West Virginia State Code requires setbacks to keep wellpads from being developed too close to homes and public drinking water intakes. However, the other types of sensitive areas assessed in this report are not protected from nearby Marcellus Shale development. Setback distances for schools, health care facilities, and public lands—and restrictions in zones of critical concern and zones of peripheral concern above drinking water intakes—would help protect vulnerable populations and recreational opportunities as fracking development continues.


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