SARDIS, Ohio — This hollow used to be peaceful.
Not long ago, Randy Heater and his daughters would roam the Monroe County hills to hunt, setting up deer stands on quiet fall days when the air was still.
On Dec. 13, that stillness shattered.
Crews lost control of a fracked well on a hilltop near Heater’s house. Natural gas surged into the air.
From their backyard, less than a mile from the well, the Heaters heard it. The rushing gas sounded like a broken air hose, Heater said — a deep, steady WHOOOOSH.
As the weekend approached, gas was still spewing uncontrollably.
Families within a mile and a half of the well have been evacuated, although not all have left their homes. They’ve been allowed back during the day, to grab clothes and feed animals, but they are supposed to be elsewhere at night.
The county emergency management agency says the families might be allowed home for good by Wednesday, Christmas Eve, but officials aren’t sure.
“We weren’t given any answers,” Heater said last week. “The only people who would talk to us is the volunteer fire department, and they weren’t getting any answers. And I understood at first. But this is Day 6, right here, and we still don’t have answers.”
The well is just outside Sardis, a community of about 560 people about 145 miles east of Columbus.
Over the past week, people there banded together.
Families who live near the well have stayed with parents or siblings or friends, sleeping on couches and recliners and living-room floors.
An elementary school that closed in 2011 has been open as a shelter for families during the day.
Triad Hunter, the company that owns the well, didn’t return calls last week. But people who were evacuated from their homes said the company told them they would be reimbursed for meals, mileage and hotel rooms.
There aren’t many hotels near Sardis, however, and the closest ones, in New Martinsville, W.Va., are filled, mostly by temporary oil and gas workers. Triad Hunter offered to put people up in hotels in Marietta, a 45-minute drive from Sardis.
Triad Hunter has offices in Marietta but is headquartered in Texas. The well that blew out on Dec. 13 had been dormant for about a year, according to state records. The company drilled the well, fracked it and plugged it in November 2013.
Crews were at the well on Dec. 13 to unplug it and prepare it for production, according to a statement on the company’s website. When they removed the cap, the pressure inside the well had gotten too high, and gas poured out. Crews couldn’t bolt the cap back in place.
It is the latest in a string of incidents this year involving fracked wells and the oil and gas industry in Monroe County, and it has some residents questioning how safe those wells are.
“If this is a one-time deal, and this happens once, fine,” said Nicole Reed, who lives near the well and was told to leave her home with her husband and three daughters. “But you just wonder how many times are things like this going to happen? Are we always going to have to have a bag packed.”
Over the summer, a well caught fire not far from Sardis, sending a thick plume of black smoke into the air and causing 25 families to flee their homes. Many of Reed’s relatives lived near that well and had to find other places to stay.
The debate over horizontal hydraulic fracturing — commonly called fracking — is raging across the country as states weigh the benefits against the costs.
To horizontally frack for oil and gas, companies drill deep underground, then turn the drill 90 degrees to cut into shale deposits. They shoot a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the well to fracture the shale. That frees oil and gas in the shale, which then flow back up the well to a wellhead.
Oil and gas industry officials say the method is safe, and they point to the number of wells that operate without incident across the United States.
But as the industry has grown in Ohio, so, too, have the number of emergencies.
In October, a well blew out in Jefferson County, forcing 400 families to evacuate their homes. Last month, an electrician working on a pump near a fracked well in Noble County was killed in an explosion.
No one has been injured by the gas spewing out of this well, and the gas hasn’t caught fire.
And some families who live near the well say they accept the risks.
“They have got top-notch people in here working on it,” said Scotty McPeek, who can see the wellhead from his home. “I absolutely trust them.”
On Friday, McPeek and his wife, Ada, were at their home. Mr. McPeek said he could see the gas spewing out of the well from a window in his house. He said the plume went “about 50, 60, 70 feet high.”
Both McPeek and his wife are retired, and they’ve been staying with their son. The disruption to their lives is minimal, he said.
For other families, like the Reeds, the disruption has been much larger.
Reed, a reading teacher at a local elementary school, has wrapped her daughters’ Christmas presents and is keeping them in her classroom because she doesn’t know where they’ll be for the holiday.
She told her daughters: “Santa can find us wherever we are, as long as we’re together.”
“It actually puts Christmas into perspective,” she said.
Reed isn’t angry, yet. But she would like more information about what is happening near her home.
Heater and his family feel the same way.
For Heater, the jobs and money that oil and gas create don’t come close to outweighing the risks.
“I don’t think the trade-off is worth it. I haven’t thought that from the beginning,” he said. ” I feel like the valley sold its soul to the devil.”
This article was written by Laura Arenschield from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.