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Residents, officials discuss environmental impact of oil and gas industry

A group of eastern Ohio residents came together on Saturday at River High School in Hannibal to talk with environmental advocates and government officials about the impact of the oil and gas industry on natural resources.

HANNIBAL — Several eastern Ohio residents and environmental experts gave testimony Saturday about health and environmental concerns with the oil and gas industry at a community listening session at River High School.

The event was facilitated by Melanie Houston of the Ohio Environmental Council. State and county officials as well as environmental legal experts and advocates were represented at the discussion, including Ohio Sen. Frank Hoagland, R-Mingo Junction, Monroe County Commissioner Mick Schumacher, and Jeanne Wilson, Appalachion regional representative for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Julie Weatherington-Rice, senior scientist at Bennett & Williams Environmental Consultants, started the discussion with a presentation about the environmental impact of the June 2014 explosion and fire at the StatOil Eisenbarth well pad in Monroe County.

She said the fire burned for five days, and the chemicals and materials that burned were a “real toxic brew.” As a result of the fire, more than 70,000 fish and other aquatic life were killed from Opossum Creek to the Ohio River.

“I want to know what happened to the smoke. Not one agency followed the smoke. These are life-threatening exposure levels,” Weatherington-Rice said. “It was such a mess of communications. If you’re going to have a screw-up, this was it.”

Weatherington-Rice said communication was either poor or non-existent between the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. EPA, and that 14 fire departments and two emergency management departments were dispatched to the scene.

The U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA didn’t receive a list of the chemicals involved in the fire until five days after the explosion.

“The plume (of smoke) lasted days past when the full list of chemicals was finally released. No water tests were administered for some of the chemicals released into the creek because they did not have access to the list of chemicals being used,” Weatherington-Rice said.

She said Opossum Creek spills into the Ohio River only 1.7 miles away from a public water intake for New Martinsville, and that city was not notified.

“Maybe it impacted them, maybe it didn’t. But we’ll never know. But the biggest problem was that no one followed the smoke,” Weatherington-Rice said.

The smoke became a low-lying fog in the higher elevations, and Monroe County resident Rebecca Bowen claims she and her family were adversely affected by it. She said her family never had any health issues until after the smoke rolled through.

“My husband and I, we’ve been married for 34 years. … We’ve had no problems. I try to stay healthy, I take vitamins, I eat right. Right after the fire it seems like things began to change. The morning after the fire, the smell was so bad. It smelled like chlorine bleach and burnt plastic. It had a sweet smell. The smoke had left a black film all over everything,” Bowen said.

Bowen said the next day, her whole family was sick with sore throats, vomiting and headaches. She said they all now suffer with breathing problems, migraines and indigestion. She said she and her family have received no help from government or oil and gas officials.

“We’ve had a lot of problems and I pray day by day that things don’t get even worse, and I hope things get better. … The people need to be protected better from this,” Bowen said.

Weatherington-Rice said that she is working to write a grant for a health survey of the entire affected area.

“I really want to know how people have been impacted by this, because if we’re going to do something meaningful, we need to get it organized in the right way. We are not just here to listen to your story, we are here to take the next step,” Weatherington-Rice said. “People should not be sick or die in vain. We need to understand what happened.”

Monroe County resident Marjorie Baumberger said she was not directly affected by the Statoil Eisenbarth fire, but she is very concerned about the overall environmental footprint of the oil and gas industry in the area. She said she lives on a farm that has been in her family since 1846 and would like to make sure the soil remains non-toxic.

“At least 10 companies are buying out all the farmers, and we are left with all this construction. … We tend to get taken advantage of,” Baumberger said. “We should take some of our royalties and put it into non-profits that will help sustain our community. Some people don’t realize that royalties don’t stay with the land. Most people retain mineral rights when they move.”

Dan Umemori, a landowner from Sterling, Ohio came to the meeting to share his thoughts on the oil and gas industry and its impact on the land and his community.

“People in our town are fighting against a pipeline going through our farms. But the oil companies just wait for people to run out of money, then they just do what they want. They get what they want, then move on. The oil companies know their plans, and they are ready for our weak little efforts,” Umemori said.

Joe and Sandra Perebzak of Batesville, in Noble County, said they, too have had problems with the industry. Perebzak said he has lived in the area for 37 years, and it was always a peaceful farming community. A compressor station was built a half-mile away from his house, which he said is “like living next to a nine-engine train station.”

Perebzak said they cannot sleep because of the noise and it is affecting their health.

“Our lives are destroyed. Our country life is completely gone. We have thought about selling our house, but we’re not sure we can even sell it,” Perebzak said.

Hoagland said he was glad he came to the meeting, and sympathized with those having health problems. He also acknowledged the benefits of the industry in providing jobs.

“We want to make sure that safety is paramount … but we want upward mobility. … Instead of us being called the Rust Belt, let’s go back to work, create jobs and make something happen.”

Schumacher said he wants to make sure the county does the right thing to make sure people are safe.

“StatOil did have a fine, and $100,000 of that fine went to our firefighters for training. … Having the water tested for a baseline is important. It’s all about facts,” Schumacher said. “We don’t want to skew the information, but use documented facts. We want to make sure we do the right thing here. …

“The fish kill was terrible, but it is fortunate we didn’t lose any human life,” he continued. “It was a terrible event and I think everybody here has a story to tell. We want to make sure that where we move forward from here, that it is appropriate and that everybody is safe.”

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