As the shale gas industry has moved west to Ohio, people there are concerned about the impact that new well pads, pipelines, compressor stations and diesel truck traffic are having on the environment and the quality of life in their rural communities. What can they learn from what has happened in southwestern Pennsylvania?
After forty years, Kerri and Jeff Bond are moving from their small farm in Seneca Lake, Ohio. The rural hillsides have changed in recent years. The trees in their yard started to lose foliage and die last year. Their sheep, chickens and cats died, and their dogs developed tumors. The Bonds, themselves, say their family has developed ongoing rashes.
“We’ve never had any of this before, ever,” Kerri Bond says. “And we’ve lived area our whole lives. We wanted to retire here. We can’t. We’ve got to move.”
LISTEN: “Gearing Up for Frack Fight, Ohio Residents Turn to PA Experts”
The Bonds blame the gas development that’s been building up all around them – numerous well pads, and the Crum Compressor Station sits about a quarter mile over the ridge from their farm. The night time sky lights up orange the compressor station is vented. Then, there’s all the diesel trucks creating traffic problems and emitting pollution.
“My community has been inundated with drilling and fracking, and waste,” she says.
Many people in the Bond’s community support the fracking industry because of the jobs and money it’s brought. So, she says she’s not popular when she complains about the drilling activity that lights up the hillside next to her house after the sun goes down.
“No one ever knows what’s going on out there,” she says. “It’s constant. My house shakes. It’s like trying to sleep next to a jet engine out there, every night.”
“TOGETHER WE CAN STAND STRONG”
Bond was one of about forty people who gathered recently at Salt Fork State Park in eastern Ohio for a meeting organized and funded by the Freshwater Accountability Project. It was an opportunity for residents to voice their concerns, and to hear from experts about the environmental, legal, and health issues of fracking.
Environmental activist Teresa Mills says people like Bond aren’t getting assistance from Ohio officials.
“The industry has everything locked down,” she says. “So people feel helpless.”
This feeling of helplessness is why Mills helped organize this community meeting.
“What we were hoping to do is to get everyone together, and show that together we can stand strong, and we can move forward,” she says.
Pennsylvanians have dealt with these issues, too. John Stolz, an environmental microbiologist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, has researched the environmental impacts of fracking for years. He says Pennsylvania regulators didn’t seem to take citizen complaints seriously.
“The reality is you’ve got 9,000 people calling the [Pennsylvania] DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] over the past ten years to complain,” he says. “It got to the point where I finally came out and said, ‘We’re not dealing with crazy people.'”
Stolz studies the impact of fracking on water quality, and claims the industry has worsened pre-existing water problems.
“For instance, I use the analogy, you’ve always had back problems, and then somebody rear-ends you, and really knocks your back out of whack,” Stolz explains. “But that was a preexisting condition, who’s going to pay for it? These are the kinds of things that are happening.”
But regulators, he says, are hesitant to pin this water pollution on the gas industry.
“They want to see a smoking gun,” he says. “They want to see a chemical that the industry has used, and frankly the probability of finding that, even from the get-go, is very, very low.”
Stolz wants to start research on how fracking is impacting the water quality here, in eastern Ohio.
DIFFERENT STATE, DIFFERENT LAWS
Environmental attorney Megan Hunter hears from people in eastern Ohio worried about the gas industry all the time. People are especially concerned about compressor stations, which keep the gas moving through pipelines.
“Hands down that is the number one call that I’ve seen since I’ve been in Ohio related to this industry.”
Hunter says people complain of health impacts and claim their farm animals are dying and the wildlife is gone. But, she told the group, Ohio doesn’t have many legal avenues to protect people who feel they’ve been harmed by the gas industry.
“There’s just a host of things that are lacking here in Ohio. Pennsylvania, not exactly an amazing role model, has some additional laws that help,” Hunter says.
For example, unlike Ohio, Pennsylvania’s constitution includes an amendment that guarantees clean air and water as a basic right. A citizen’s group in a suburban township east of Pittsburgh is using the Environmental Rights Amendment to challenge the local ordinance which allows fracking in rural areas of the township.
Local governments in Pennsylvania can use zoning to restrict where well pads are located. Hunter says in Ohio, local zoning authority is still in question.
“IT’S NOT OK”
Raina Rippel, director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, works with people in communities impacted by the natural gas industry. She understands that lack of control in the face of change can be scary for people who live in communities experiences rapid expansion of the natural gas industry.
“The sense that what was once a rural community is overrun with truck traffic; the sense that you’re not sure if your air is safe to breathe; you’re not sure if your water is safe to drink,” Rippel says, “…is too easily dismissed by the industry saying, you don’t have the data, you don’t have the facts.”
“I think we all understand we are being exposed,” says Ripple. “We understand that we are being subjected to these harmful emissions. We may not understand exactly how that’s going to translate – and I hate to say the word – into cancer – years down the line, but we know that something is happening, and we know that this is not ok.”
In an email, the Ohio EPA said it has public involvement coordinators to talk with citizens about complaints. The agency recommends people visit its website or call these numbers:
>>Ohio EPA’s website has a “Citizen Concerns” section where public meetings and notices are listed. The publc can also access public records there, file an environmental complaint, and even report a spill. You can also call the office for help: 614.644-2160.
>>To report spill, release or environmental crime call the Ohio EPA 24/7 hotline: 1-800-282-9378
>The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has a incident reporting hotline staffed around the clock: 844-OHCALL1. Routine complaints can be directed to central office at (614) 265-6922 or any of the regional offices or via email at email@example.com.
Photo(top): notanalternative / flickr