Back in February, 300 people crowded into a school gym in Medina County, Ohio, to lob questions, concerns — and some unvarnished anger — at state environmental regulators. At issue was the siting of a new natural gas compressor station along the planned NEXUS pipeline — a 250-mile transmission line being built to carry gas from Ohio to Chicago, southeast Michigan and Ontario.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency held the meeting as part of the permitting process for the new compressor station. Such facilities are critical — if not well-known — components of the nation’s energy infrastructure. They are needed every 40 to 100 miles along pipelines to re-pressurize natural gas and keep it moving. There are about 150 such stations in Ohio already, and state officials say there are about 15 new ones planned.
Like other industrial facilities, compressor stations are allowed to emit limited amounts of air pollutants. And while the Ohio EPA and energy companies say the facilities are safe and well-regulated, some people who live near them say the pollution is making them sick.
Carroll County resident Barry Booth says he believes his dogs gave him an early indication something was wrong with the air when pipelines, wells and compressor stations started sprouting up all around his home back in 2013.
“The dogs stick their nose to the door, turn around and come right back in the house,” he says.
Initially, Booth, who’s retired from manufacturing, didn’t have a problem with the nearby gas exploration. He even signed a lease agreement with Chesapeake Energy to make some extra money. Then one day, he went to get his wife, Mary Booth, a cup of coffee. The next thing he knew, he was on the floor — nauseated and dizzy.
“I jumped up to check on him and then ended up beside him,” Mary Booth remembers. “It was just really hard to breathe, and the odor was very strong.”
The Booths say they also started getting rashes, nosebleeds and headaches. And Mary Booth has battled breast cancer.
The couple blames air emissions from the nearby gas facilities — especially a big compressor station — for their recent health problems. That facility’s permit allows it to emit limited amounts of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulates, among other pollutants.
So far, there hasn’t been a lot of research on health impacts from oil and gas development — particularly, those from compressor stations. But Trevor Penning, a researcher at the Center for Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania, is trying to shed some light on that issue.
As part of his research, Penning and his colleagues compared health trends in neighboring counties with and without heavy gas development. In all, they analyzed 92,000 inpatient hospitalization records between 2007 and 2011.
Wayne County, an area without fracking, followed the national trend of declining hospital admissions. But in Susquehanna and Bradford counties, where gas extraction had taken off, Penning found a 3 percent annual increase in inpatient hospitalization rates.
Penning says that’s significant. And while his study didn’t measure pollution levels, or possible sources, he says many of the health issues his group documented were things you’d expect from air pollution — like heart problems.
“I actually feel that many residents who feel their health has been affected by this activity need to be listened to,” he says.
As more pipelines are built, many people who live outside drilling regions are now finding that compressor stations are bringing the industry’s effects closer to home. That’s why David Brown, a public health toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, says it makes sense to try to single out these facilities for research. (Note: Brown’s group is funded in part by the Park Foundation, which also supports this reporting project.)
For example, Brown heard complaints from people in the town of Minisink, New York. There was a compressor station there, but no other gas activity. And the closest regional air sampling station showed pollution levels in compliance with federal standards. But when he did air monitoring in people’s homes near the compressor station, particulate matter tested higher than the regional numbers.
He also had residents keep health diaries, which Brown says revealed more problems.
“They’re told (they) should be all right because the air standards aren’t being violated,” Brown says. “(But) when somebody’s child wakes up with nosebleeds in the middle of the night, regularly, then they know something is wrong.”
Brown says the federal standards aim to improve overall regional air quality. But they’re not designed to protect people from frequent, close-range pollution exposure.
Brown’s research project was small, but he says his and others’ findings suggest compressor stations alone can be powerful polluters. Federal studies near two compressor stations in Washington and Susquehanna counties in Pennsylvania found fine particulate matter and other pollutants at levels that could be harmful to people’s health — although the researchers behind those studies also say their findings are limited.
Pennsylvania regulators agree more data is needed. They plan to install more air monitors in areas with compressor stations and gas wells next year.
Some health advocates also want more oversight of individual facilities. Right now, regulators rely mostly on companies’ own emissions data.
“It would be nice to be able to have an employee out at every single facility on a 24-hour basis to verify compliance,” says Mike Hopkins of the Ohio EPA’s Division of Air Pollution Control. “But the reality is that we can’t afford to have that level of staffing.”
However, some in the industry say that activists are making a mountain out of a molehill.
“Yes, there are some emissions from operating a compressor station,” says Jimmy Stewart, president of the Ohio Gas Association, an industry trade group. “(But) they pale in comparison to the emissions of a whole lot of other things that you are exposed to on a daily or weekly basis.”
Stewart says people have less to fear from compressor stations than they do from traffic exhaust and gas station fumes.
“So, should we then shut down every Speedway and BP? And should we stop using gasoline and diesel fuel? I don’t think so.”
But longtime Carroll County resident Barry Booth says he and his wife are so afraid for their health, they’re now planning to move. A neighboring family settled a lawsuit with a company over a different compressor station. And now Booth, a former local union leader, is back to battling companies in retirement. At public meetings, he’s urged people to fight new compressor stations.
“I would not be doing any of this if the company would be doing what they’re supposed to be doing to the environment and everything,” he says.
But researcher Trevor Penning says this is part of the cost of the country’s desire for homegrown energy and jobs from oil and gas development.
“The EPA always works not on the concept of no risk, but acceptable risk,” he says. “So the issue becomes: What is the acceptable risk here?”
And to bring clarity to that question, Penning says there’s a huge need for more research.