Fenceline monitoring: A way to monitor well pad emissions for public health

PITTSBURGH – Fenceline monitoring is a way to monitor emissions from well pads and other gas industry sites. It’s been talked about in West Virginia for several years, though the state has done nothing about it.

Several experts talked about its potential benefits, its limitations and its apparent inevitability during a panel session the second of the 2018 Shale Insight Conference.

Fenceline monitoring involves setting up air and weather monitoring equipment at the edge of well pads in order to get a handle on what’s escaping from the site into the surrounding community.

WVU Professor Michael McCawley told the Legislature several years ago that it’s a good way to track not only air quality, but noise, dust and light pollution. His recommendation came from a study mandated by the Legislature, but the Legislature never did anything with it.

During the panel discussion, energy attorney Jessica Sharrow Thompson explained to the audience what fenceline monitoring is. Across all industries – not just natural gas – the EPA’s Air Toxics Initiative and enforcement efforts are leading to fenceline monitoring to reduce hazardous air pollutants.

EPA’s action has picked up since 2016, she said, though there are no current federal or state mandates to do it. “But it’s likely to start coming.”

Four factors are driving that movement, she said: air quality and public health data gaps; what EPA terms “citizen science,” which is encouraging people to collect their own data, unfortunately with low cost sensors and monitors that generate unreliable data; community concerns; and EPA’s air quality enforcement and national compliance initiative.

Along with addressing those issues, she said, fenceline monitoring can help providing transparency to the public and allow operators to track their data and refine site emissions estimate.

But there are risks, too, she said. Among them, the public and agencies can misunderstand and even misuse the data.

Lisa Bailey, senior toxicologist with environmental consulting firm Gradient Corp., talked about public health and the limitations of fenceline monitoring.

“It’s important to think about exposure and also to think about risk,” she said.

It has to be understood, she said, that toxic substance concentrations at the monitor won’t be the same as at the source, or out in the community. Concentrations will decrease moving away form the source.

Data will be affected by other air sources: industry, cars and so on, she said, along with wind and weather. “That has to be considered when considering health impacts.”

Out in the community, it’s hard to distinguish what’s coming from the site from what’s coming from other sources such as industry and vehicles, she said. Monitors should also be installed at point in the community, although that data will be affected by other sources, too.

And evaluating the data and how site emissions might affect public health also poses a challenge, she said, because other factors will play a role – such as exposure to other pollutants, smoking and so on.

Christopher Rimkus, managing general counsel for MPLX/MarkWest, shared the real life example of adequate data providing a payoff when a citizen complained about site emissions and EPA stepped in with threats of enforcement.

“What we assumed to be true was in fact true,” he said. “Folks were safe.”

But that was just one site. “There’s still a lack of trust. We need data to inform the public, to inform our operations, to inform rulemaking.”

Having adequate data and sharing it assures the regulators and the public, he said. “We need to gather it in a way where there’s transparency.” It has to be available to everyone.

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