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Eco-group working to make invisible air pollution from Ohio’s Utica Shale visible to everyone

BARNESVILLE — Peter Dronkers of Earthworks makes invisible air pollution from shale drilling visible to everyone.

The viewfinder of Dronkers’ special infrared gas-recording camera shows billowing clouds or wispy leaks.

What appears in the videos as wind-blown plumes of smoke are really pollutants that are invisible to the naked eye.

Earthworks, a national environmental group based in Washington, D.C., quietly came into Ohio during the summer with its camera to determine if shale drilling, natural gas processing and transportation are fouling the air and sickening Ohio residents.

The $100,000 optical gas imaging thermographer camera can detect up to 20 different gases that environmentalists say could pose a health threat to those living in Ohio’s Utica Shale, the region in eastern Ohio with natural gas and liquids.

Earthworks initially posted eight Ohio videos to YouTube. It returned recently to film seven additional Ohio sites that will be posted soon.

The group has been recording emissions from shale sites in Ohio and six other states.

Such emissions increase the likelihood that air pollution problems will be found, said Nadia Steinzor of Earthworks’ Citizens Empowerment Project.

Her group and the Ohio Environmental Council are pushing a new grass-roots effort to determine how big a threat shale drilling and related emissions are to neighbors in Ohio.

The Ohio videos show “lots of intense emissions that are, in some cases, continuing unabated,” Steinzor said. “The emissions we’re seeing in Ohio are significant.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to impose new rules to cut air emissions from new drilling facilities by 40 percent, starting next year. The cuts could reduce methane releases by 400,000 tons and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by 180,000 tons a year.

The industry is opposed, saying such action is unneeded. The agency is accepting public comment through Dec. 4. The proposed cuts would not affect existing facilities.

Energy in Depth, a pro-drilling trade group that spoke on behalf of the companies whose sites were examined, also isn’t impressed by what Earthworks is doing.

“It sounds like a solution in search of a problem,” said Jackie Stewart, a spokeswoman for Energy in Depth-Ohio. “It sounds like a lot of smoke and mirrors … and very unscientific and of very limited use.”

In related news, Eco-group working to make invisible air pollution from Ohio’s Utica Shale visible to everyone.

Residents worried

Landowners Jeff and Kerri Bond said they are troubled by the emissions spewing from the wells on their 176-acre property near Seneca Lake in Noble County. They’re convinced those emissions — captured on video during visits by the Earthworks crew in July and October — triggered headaches, nausea, dizziness and other medical problems and killed a dozen trees in the yard this year because of chemical-laced morning mists.

There are 15 well pads and a compressor station within two miles of their house, said Kerri Bond.

“There is a chemical smell in the air, an acidy smell,” said 60-year-old Jeff Bond, who lives in Seneca Township.

The couple keep their windows closed to keep the smells out.

“We want out,” he said.

In all, Earthworks has posted about 150 infrared videos from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, California and New York.

The videos from Noble, Carroll, Columbiana and Belmont counties provide “a snapshot of what’s being released,” said Alan Septoff of Earthworks.

It is part of an initiative by Earthworks to prove that such air pollution is a real problem and to help drilling communities with such problems to fight back, Steinzor said.

Such emissions can sicken neighbors and those living downwind of the wells, processing plants, compression stations or pipelines, Septoff said.

The Ohio emissions include VOCs that can affect human health and contribute to unhealthful smoggy air, said Paul Feezel, president of Carroll Concerned Citizens, a grass-roots group in Carroll County southeast of Canton.

Ohio activist John Morgan, 69, of Beallsville said the videos are “a visual way to show people that something is going on, that we have a problem here.”

In related news, Foes challenge proposed fracking in national forest in Ohio.

Finding emissions

The Earthworks program in Ohio is being slowly expanded to include collecting air samples for analysis, but that is costly, Steinzor said.

During a recent tour of Ohio’s Belmont County, Colorado-based Dronkers found significant air emissions from a compressor station outside Barnesville and at nearby wells where drillers are getting natural gas, oil and other liquids.

A MarkWest Energy Partners’ compressor station produced what Dronkers described as a fairly thick plume that was visible through his camera up to 800 feet away from the plant’s six stacks.

He estimated the emissions compared to the diesel exhaust of more than 50 idling semis.

Steinzor said the plant is an issue because it released emissions when it was filmed in July and was still releasing emissions on a subsequent visit several months later.

From a ridge outside Barnesville, the camera — using its infrared imaging — showed a hot spot on a flare that was burning natural gas at a Utica Shale well drilled by Hess, a New York-based energy company.

A small leak was detected from a valve at a nearby Blue Racer Midstream gas-gathering facility outside Barnesville. Dronkers stood just outside the fence and recorded the thermal images. “There’s not anything unusual here, but there are emissions,” he said.

There was no sign of leaks at another injection well for drilling wastes off state Route 800 outside Barnesville. “Nothing,” Dronkers said. “It’s as clean as a whistle.”

The biggest problem for Earthworks is getting close enough to the facilities while on public roads without trespassing, Steinzor said.

“We’re making the pollution visible to regulators,” Steinzor said. “It cannot be ignored. We force them to be more responsive. … Such citizen monitoring is becoming more and more important as state regulatory agencies face budget cuts.”

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.

This article was written by BOB DOWNING from The Akron Beacon Journal and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.