Family Claims Natural Gas Facility is Making Them Sick

Theresa Brothers stands in her front yard, with Blue Racer Midstream's natural gas compressor station visible in the background. Photo by Joanna Richards
Theresa Brothers stands in her front yard, with Blue Racer Midstream's natural gas compressor station visible in the background. Photo by Joanna Richards
Featured Audio

TONY GANZER:

It’s All things Considered on 90.3. I’m Tony Ganzer. Back in the fall, we told you about the Brothers family, in eastern Ohio, battling an energy company which built a very loud natural gas compressor station near the family’s home. 

More of these facilities are likely to be built around Ohio as the shale gas industry grows.

Ideastream’s Joanna Richards checked in on the family to see how they’re doing, and she joins me now.

Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA RICHARDS:

Hi, Tony.

GANZER:

Now first can you remind us – what’s going on here?

RICHARDS:

Sure. So the Brothers family lives in Carroll County, which has seen a lot of oil and gas development over the last few years. And they have, as you mentioned, this very loud piece of equipment next door. Here’s what Frank Brothers sounds like talking over it in his front yard.

SOUND CLIP OF FRANK BROTHERS:

(Over loud industrial hum…) As you can see, that’s what’s coming right at our door.

What you’re hearing there is a natural gas compressor station. These are facilities that are built every 50 to maybe 100 miles along pipelines, and they help pump the gas through them.

This one belongs to a company called Blue Racer Midstream. This company is a little unusual in that they didn’t do anything to tamp down the noise. Most companies do that. But what I found in my last story is that they’re not always required to by local laws.

And as the Ohio shale gas industry grows, more pipelines are being built. So it’s possible more people could find themselves in conflicts like this.

GANZER:

Mm-hm. As I mentioned at the start, you checked in with the Brothers family. How are they doing?

RICHARDS:

Actually, they say things have gotten much worse. The company told me and told them it would work on the noise. It actually hasn’t done that; they say it’s just as loud as ever. But now they’re much more worried about some health issues.

Now that this thing has been running about a year, Frank Brothers tells me his wife is having some respiratory problems. Here’s some of the other issues they’re experiencing.

SOUND CLIP OF BROTHERS:

Well, the worst thing has been whenever we had pus coming out of our eyes and we all had a cough, and nauseated.

Frank Brothers also told me his wife has surgery to remove a throat abscess. Those are all things they think are related to living near this station.

GANZER:

But is there any evidence these facilities are actually causing health problems like this?

RICHARDS:

Well, there aren’t a lot of studies yet specifically on oil and gas facilities and human health, but the Brothers are not the only people who live near one of these things who say they’ve been experiencing some health problems. There’s more and more anecdotes popping up.

I also spoke to Amir Sapkota. He’s a public health researcher with the University of Maryland, and worked on a study recently looking at a lot of the different health impacts the shale gas industry can have.

SOUND CLIP OF AMIR SAPKOTA:

There’s a large body of evidence that shows what you get from these compressor stations, these emissions, including volatile organic compounds – particularly things such as benzene. I mean, benzene is a known human carcinogen. It causes cancer in humans, period.

Sapkota says that some of the early research on living near these compressor stations, wells, things like that, show that there’s a higher incidence rate of these kinds of symptoms the Brothers are describing – sore throats, breathing problems, and even things like birth defects and premature births – for people who live closer to these stations.

GANZER:

If the Brothers family thinks this is making them sick, what are they doing about it? What can they do about it?

RICHARDS:

Well, for a long time, they were just complaining to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, and eventually the agency did cite the company, Blue Racer, with 10 different violations. They said they weren’t testing properly for air emissions, they weren’t reporting malfunctions. They didn’t even have some of the permits they needed to operate, and then they were endangering the public welfare with noise.

So the EPA did some air emissions testing and found some of these volatile organic compounds that Sapkota mentioned in the air near the station.

So that led to the state Attorney General’s office filing a lawsuit, asking for compliance from the company and also a fine. And then the family filed a federal lawsuit, looking for basically the same things, plus some compensation for property devaluation and also for the company to pay for health monitoring.

GANZER:

And where does the company come down on all this?

RICHARDS:

Well, the company didn’t want to comment because it’s pending litigation, but for my last story, I did speak with their spokesperson, Casey Nikoloric. This was back when the main complaint was the noise, of course, and I had asked her how she thought she would handle being in this family’s shoes.

SOUND CLIP OF CASEY NIKOLORIC:

I would want to know that Blue Racer’s first priority is safety, and it certainly is. I would want to know that Blue Racer makes absolutely sure that everything it does is in compliance with government regulations, and it does that.

So far the company has not disputed the family’s health claims, but they have asked the court to dismiss some of the claims on technical grounds. And as far as the state complaint, they haven’t responded to that one yet.

GANZER:

That’s ideastream’s Joanna Richards, and you can find a link to her original story at wcpn.org.

 

This story was supported by a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

 

Related stories:

For Some, Shale Gas Industry's a Headache

In Shale Country, A Boom in Quiet

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