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Fee proposed in hopes of increasing number of state well inspectors

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There are currently 11 inspectors in the state Office of Oil Gas and that has raised the concern of several state lawmakers and environmental groups.

Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio

Decreased funding and resource shifting has left the office with only a handful of inspectors to take care of 75,000 active and abandoned wells. Water wells and their well pumps must be inspected periodically to avoid any damages and ensure that the water supply is safe and clean.

“I don’t think the public realizes the dangers that are posed by this situation,” state Senator Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, said during a Zoom call with reporters Thursday. “If we don’t have enough inspectors out in the field to keep an eye on these and identify dangerous situations then we’re all at risk.”

He said there could be an explosion or tanks associated with the wells could begin leaking and contaminate nearby drinking water.

According to the DEP, it had 39 overall employees when it looked at reducing its budget. It reduced its overall positions to 25. Eleven of the 14 workers impacted have found jobs in other divisions.

Ihlenfeld first learned of the severe staffing shortages during last year’s legislative session. He’s had an ongoing dialogue with the state Department of Environmental Protection in hopes of finding new funding sources.

Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, has joined Ihlenfeld on a proposed bill that would charge those who own existing wells an annual $100 fee. The revenue would finance the Office of Oil and Gas, providing for more inspectors, Hansen said.

“That’s really the only way to generate enough revenue with an annual fee is to apply it to all existing wells,” he said. “It’s $100 a year. It’s not a significant burden for any well that’s producing.”

DEP well inspectors are currently funded through permit fees but drilling for natural gas has slowed down in West Virginia causing a significant reduction in fee revenue. The DEP said Thursday it would need another $1.3 million in fund the 25 workers.

Evan Hansen

Hansen said there should be bipartisan support to get the office back to being fully staffed.

“I’m hoping that this is not a partisan issue and that we could come together and reach agreement on an approach that fully funds the office,” he said. “Ideally we would have some money left over to help address the abandoned wells.”

Hansen said there are possible other options including a budget improvement package that would take money from the general revenue fund. A third proposal would be to divert 1.5% from the natural gas severance tax to finance the Office of Oil and Gas. Hansen said neither of those options would be as stable as an annual well fee.

Ihlenfeld said it’s an issue that can’t be ignored by the legislature. He said natural gas drilling has slowed but it will get better and a full staff of inspectors will be needed.

“This cyclical industry will come back and we need to make sure that we’re adequately staffed when it does come back but we also need a permanent fix for all the wells that exist today and continue to exist and will have some level of productivity,” Ihlenfeld said.

A bill which got a little traction in the Senate last year would have created a $2,500 modification fee to well permits. It didn’t pass.

The 60-day legislative session begins next Wednesday.

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