EQT fights waste disposal ban in W.Va.

For the past few weeks, EQT Corp. has been defending its 200 oil and gas wells and one wastewater injection well in Fayette County, W.Va. against a new county law that could shut it all down.

On Jan. 12, the Fayette County Commission adopted an ordinance that bans storing, disposing of, handling, treating and processing natural gas or oil waste within the county's borders.

Because all wells produce waste which needs to be handled in one of the ways prohibited above, the ordinance is meant to stop the industry from operating all together, EQT says.

"That's true," conceded Tom Rhule, communications director for West Virginia's Mountain Party, a grass-roots political party which drafted the language that morphed into Fayette County's ban.

That was his intention in casting the net so broadly as to encompass all activities having to do with oil and gas waste, which Mr. Rhule said is hazardous and not properly regulated in his state.

He also concedes Pittsburgh-based EQT's argument that if the ordinance is allowed to stand, it would ruin EQT's investment in the county and cause landowners who've signed oil and gas leases to lose potential revenue.

"It's a good argument," Mr. Rhule said, "but if you look at the West Virginia Bill of Rights, it puts people over corporations."

EQT has filed a lawsuit in federal court against Fayette County commissioners and, last week, won an injunction that temporarily prevents the county commission from enforcing the ordinance.

In court records, EQT has called the new ordinance "patently illegal" and said it amounts to "a government 'taking' of private property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution."

The company also asserted that state, not county, law governs oil and gas and waste disposal matters.

It dismissed concerns that oil and gas waste presents a health hazard to county residents, stating the idea "is arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, unfairly discriminatory, wholly without factual support, and bears no substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare."

The company declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation.

The movement to enact the ordinance was a reaction to citizen complaints about another wastewater injection well in Fayette County, operated by Danny Webb Construction. A petition with 5,000 signatures urging a ban was delivered to the commission.

The ordinance establishes storing or handling wastewater as a misdemeanor offense which could come with a fine up to $5 million and possible jail time, as well as expose operators to citizen suits.

There are more than 500 oil and gas wells in the county, with EQT as the dominant operator.

Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., which has about 75 wells there, is studying the issue, said spokesman George Stark, and evaluating its options.

More than a dozen New York counties have passed bans on how oil and gas wastewater is treated and handled and, in prior years, a number of municipalities across Appalachia and other oil and gas rich states enacted legislation attempting to ban fracking.

In some cases, the ordinances are little more than a formality, such as in Pittsburgh, where a company is unlikely to want to develop an unconventional well. In others, as in Morgantown, fracking bans have been successfully challenged and struck down.

Mr. Rhule said he's confident the Fayette County ordinance will be allowed to stand.

"State code provides (the) county commission the right to protect the citizens of the county from anything that they deem to be hazardous or possibly hazardous to the county," he said.

He's got five other counties interested in enacting similar laws, but has told most of them to wait and see how this case develops.

The Mountain Party is attempting to move the case from federal to state court.

The next court hearing is scheduled for Feb. 11.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

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