Is air quality the next big worry over natural gas drilling?

    In 2007 Stephanie Hallowich bought land in Washington County, Pennsylvania, to build her dream home. It was going to be that perfect place to raise children. Then the natural gas drillers came.

    By the time the home in Mount Pleasant Township was finished, four gas wells had sprung up on neighboring parcels — along with a 4 million gallon impoundment pond to store fluids used in the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Nearby were also a gas pipeline compressor station, and a liquid natural gas processing plant. The facilities were operated by three separate companies.

    Hallowich: So our 10 acres in the country is now 10 acres in an industrial site.

    Researchers say risks may be posed by living near such a drilling site. Benzene, radioactive strontium and arsenic can come up from these wells after fracking. Natural gas itself carries very high concentrations of volatile organic chemicals.

    One possible worry is air quality. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection isn’t set up to keep a close eye on air quality at all the Marcellus Shale gas sites that now dot the state. Hallowich claims problems are frequent at the facilities near her property, help is slow to arrive, and she rarely sees regulators at the sites.

    Hallowich: We had a power outage over at the plant back in April. It blew the valve off of this pipe and for 75 minutes, at 200 psi, it blew raw gas into the air.

    Hallowich says she gets headaches all the time now, and her family has had to evacuate the house several times because someone feels sick. She blames it on the gas.

    Local authorities had no record of the incident Hallowich mentioned. But Hallowich said she called – that she has called many times about problems.

    DEP officials have not returned repeated calls seeking comment on Hallowich’s claims.

    The situation frustrates Hallowich. She didn’t sign on for all this. She has no lease with the gas companies, and she gets no royalty payments. And on top of that, her well water is now undrinkable, she said, so she has to truck her water in.

    But as much as her family might now want to move she can’t imagine anyone would buy her home.

    Hallowich: It’s not worth anything,” she said of the dream home. “And our quality of life is just terrible.

    She isn’t the only one with quality of life concerns connected to shale gas drilling.

    On September 24 the Colorado School of Public Health released a report citing health concerns posed by a proposed shale gas well in the small town of Battlement Mesa. And air quality impacts relating in part to gas development in the Barnett Shale region of Texas have caused a running battle between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality over strengthening emissions requirements.

    Locally, in September a group of anti drilling protestors cornered Ed Rendell at the Washington County Court House to express health concerns over gas drilling. Some of them were from Mount Pleasant.

    Still, many in the six-square-mile town are happy for the gas boom and the prosperity that has come with it, and some don’t mind the 90 or so wells that pepper the area.

    Researchers say the only way to resolve the debate over whether natural gas drilling is dangerous to your health is through solid academic studies, which have not yet been done at a level that provides any certainty.

    Until then, the Hallowich family has a system.

    Hallowich: We have a windsock that we keep out back on a pole, and depending on what way the wind is blowing is whether or not we can let the children out to play.

     

     

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