Bordering western Pennsylvania, the landscape of eastern Ohio is changing, literally. The oil and gas industry is starting to take a front seat in what’s traditionally been rural coal country. Stretches of hillsides are being cleared of trees to make way for well pads and pipelines.
As in Pennsylvania, some people here are excited about the new industry. But others are concerned that there’s not enough regulation in place to protect waterways, and other aspects of the environment, from potential harm, especially in communities that cleaned up their local streams that were impacted by coal mining.
From Coal to Pipelines
In rural Belmont County, where the natural gas industry is expanding, commissioner President Mark Thomas remembers when coal was dominant. He recalls riding his bike when he was a kid on what are called coal gobs.
“It’s the waste from the coal,” Thomas explains. “They started dumping and they started dumping and dumping, and next thing you know have a hill.”
The coal waste came from two mines owned by Murray Energy. The mines sit along the banks of Captina Creek, a watershed the feeds directly into the Ohio River. The region, around where Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia meet, is called the Appalachian Coal Basin, and it’s considered to one of the largest coal fields in the country.
By the late 1970s, Murray Energy’s coal mines had left the water quality in Captina Creek so bad that large sections of it were declared dead. Local citizens mounted an effort to clean up the stream and, with help from the coal companies, removed the gob piles from its banks.
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Today, Captina is considered one the cleanest streams that feeds into the Ohio. People swim and fish in it. Abbey Hayward, Captina Creek Watershed Coordinator at the Belmont County Soil and Water Conservation District, keeps an eye on the rare Eastern Hellbender salamander that lives here.
“That species in particular is sensitive to clear water,” she says. “They need clearer water because they breathe through their skin.”
Hayward moved to this area late last year to keep watch over the creek. She didn’t really know anything about mining. Her second day on the job, there was a meeting of area residents, environmental groups, and coal companies to talk about the creek.
“That was impressive to me,” Hayward recalls. “Because I was like, they do work together? This is going to be great, I have people helping!”
But Hayward soon noticed drilling rigs on the hillsides, a sign of energy companies fracking for natural gas. Even though no one in her office, nor the Captina Creek Watershed Action Plan, had mentioned fracking, she started to understand how quickly the industry was moving in to Belmont County.
Then last spring, she started getting flooded with phone calls about pipelines.
“We get calls all the time, and they’re increasing,” she says. “It’s, ‘Somebody’s cutting these trees down. And, ‘Somebody’s doing something in this creek,’ and we don’t know what’s going on.”
Energy companies need pipelines to connect their frack wells with the wider energy distribution system. But they aren’t necessarily informing local offices, like Hayward’s, about what they’re doing.
“Some people are very understanding, because they’ve been calling 15 different offices trying to get an answer,” Hayward says. “And I’ve had some landowners who are very upset, because they have somebody doing work in their back 40, encroaching on their water supply.”
Hayward tries to track things down, but it’s different than calling the local coal company, where the people who work there also live in the community. There are at least a dozen pipeline companies building here, from places like Oklahoma, Texas, Alberta, Canada.
“You don’t get a lot of feedback,” Hayward says. “You try to contact the right person, and there’s just so many people. And they move so fast because they have deadlines. Do I talk to the environmental representative? Do I talk to a land man?…. I don’t know who to go to.”
This is especially concerning to her considering what’s happened with the Rover pipeline, a 700 mile natural gas transmission line being built from West Virginia, through Ohio, and into Michigan. Rover has already been cited by Ohio regulators 13 times, and spilled more than 2 million gallons of diesel-laced drilling mud into a pristine Ohio wetland near a municipal water supply.
Over the summer, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stepped in to halt Rover’s construction at Captina Creek and elsewhere.
“The known unknown of the pipeline industry”
Ted Auch, who collects data about the oil and gas industry in Ohio for a non-profit called Fractracker, doesn’t worry as much about spills by the big transmission lines, like Rover.
“Those get reported most of the time, and they get quite a bit of media coverage,” he says. “What I worry about are these gathering lines.”
Gathering pipelines connect drilling well pads to the larger gas distribution system, and Auch doesn’t think there’s enough information about their routes to regulate them properly. He calls them “the known unknown of the pipeline industry.“
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Ohio and Pennsylvania are among the states with the most local gathering lines in the U.S. According to a report from the American Petroleum Institute, there are about 24,000 miles of these lines in Ohio alone. When he talks with county officials, Auch says, they know where pipelines cross county and state roads,
“But in between there we have no idea what it’s doing…that’s 95-percent of the pipelines,” Auch says.
Pipelines over a certain size need to be certified by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. If a pipeline builder plans to cross a creek or other waterway, and uses a method that will impact the water, it also needs a state certification.
According to data by the Ohio EPA, the state has issued more than thirty of these stream and wetland crossing certificates for pipeline projects in Belmont County in the past three years.
But when it comes to siting those smaller gathering lines, the state says local zoning authorities are in charge. Belmont County Commission President Mark Thomas says his county, like many in rural Ohio, don’t have zoning rules.
“The county has no teeth as far as regulations,” he says.
Thomas says he has some concerns with how quickly fracking and pipelines are moving into his region.
“Are these industries regulated, as was coal? Is it safer? What’s it going to do to the environment?,” he wonders. “The best we can do is look to the state.”
As the coal economy fades, Thomas weighs those risks with the benefits. He’s convinced the oil and gas industry will help this region reinvent itself after coal, long-term.
A chemical company based in Thailand has purchased property in Belmont County, along the Ohio River, and is expected to announce by the end of the year if it will build a multi-billion dollar ethane cracker. Similar to the Shell plant under construction in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, it would use the natural gas from fracking to create the building blocks for plastic. Thomas believes it could make natural gas the next job-creator in this region.
Abbey Hayward has no intention of trying to stop the pipeline. Still, she doesn’t like seeing construction equipment sitting right in Captina Creek, and she had no authority to find out more about it.
“They have tight deadlines, and somebody is paying them a lot of money and they’re paying people, and I’m just somebody who’s trying to keep a creek nice,” she says.
Top photo: In May, workers clean up a 2 million gallon spill of drilling mud by Energy Transfer into a pristine wetland in Stark County, Ohio while building its Rover pipeline that will run from West Virginia to Michigan. The federal government shut down construction while the company makes improvements. Photo: Ohio EPA