Published: September 18, 2014
By: Nadia Steinzor
Other parts of Blackout in the Gas Patch:
From the case study:
Events in Angel and Wayne Smith’s community of Clearville illustrate the trajectory of gas development in Pennsylvania. In 2007, Steckman Ridge, LP (a subsidiary of Spectra Energy) proposed to build a Marcellus Shale gas storage project by converting and expanding an older Oriskany Sandstone gas production field, parts of which would run under and near the Smith’s home and cattle operations.
Our research on gas wells and facilities in the area revealed several pollution events, problems that persisted for long periods of time, and plausible reasons why the development would have compromised air and water quality. In addition, there were instances when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) gave operators the benefit of the doubt about activities and incidents. Yet it was only because residents filed complaints that DEP conducted some inspections and investigations and discovered violations.
Over time, the Smiths and several neighbors have developed increasingly frequent headaches, bouts of fatigue, sinus problems, throat and eye irritation, muscle tremors, and shortness of breath. They wonder if groundwater conditions might have changed due to early drilling activities, the shutting in of production wells, or continual injection and withdrawal of gas at the storage field. They’ve tracked when blowdowns and venting occur at the station and possible links to their health problems. They’ve filed numerous complaints with DEP, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the US National Response Center (NRC), written to public officials, and filed Right-to-Know requests to obtain documents on operations and emissions.
The Smiths trace the start of their problems to the summer of 2007, when the taste, odor, and appearance of water from their well and spring began to change. Over the course of several months, a horse and three cows died and 12 calves were either miscarried or stillborn—unprecedented losses in decades of farming. When operations expanded at the Steckman Ridge Quarles Compressor station, the Smiths and other residents started experiencing frequent noise and odors and declining air quality.
In April 2008, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) about the Steckman Ridge gas storage project, including concerns about the “proximity of area residents to the pipeline alignment,” that “excessive noise levels [from the compressor station] can harm human health and well-being,” and the need for a “comprehensive assessment and mitigation of issues that might negatively affect human health.”1 Just two months later, FERC approved the project—relying in part on assurances by Steckman Ridge that “its proposed facilities strike an appropriate balance between landowner and environmental concerns and system requirements” and “any adverse impacts on landowners and communities will be minimal.”
DEP has never made any connection between problems reported by residents and older drilling activities, the more recent gas storage project, or the compressor station. It isn’t clear whether this had to do with time and resource constraints, insufficient information and training provided to inspectors, inconsistent parameters in testing that made data comparison difficult, or other factors. In the meantime, the Smiths and their neighbors continue to ask questions about their health and environment—and are still waiting for answers.