Ohio Residents Who Complain About Oil And Gas Feel 'Abandoned' By State
A decade ago, people in Ohio hadn't heard much about fracking for natural gas in the state. But since then, the ups and downs of the gas industry have literally changed the rural landscape of eastern Ohio.
For some people that has meant new jobs or royalty payments from leasing their land. But the thousands of new well pads, the pipelines, compressor stations, and waste injection wells haven't been welcomed by everyone. Citizens have filed thousands of complaints with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) about everything from gas leaks and crumbling roads to odors and noise they blame on energy development.
Selling The Farm
Kerri and Jeff Bond's house in the hills of Noble County, Ohio is nearly empty. An antique bed frame, old board games, a power washer are among hundreds of their possessions laid out in the garage, on the driveway, outside the barn ready to be auctioned off.
After 40 years here, they feel they need to leave.
"It's been difficult," said Kerri Bond. "But today, I have just this peace, because we're finally going to get out of here."
Bond and her sister, Jodi Carter watch from the sidelines. Both are retired nurses, small women in floral dresses, with long greying hair and sad eyes. Carter tears up, as she waits for bidding to start on the property.
"This is where we’ve had all our family gatherings," she said. "You know, the kids play in the woods, and the pond. It's just…sad. It's sad to lose it all to no control."
The reason Bond says they need to leave is why many in the crowd here are intrigued by this auction: The lucrative underground mineral rights are for sale.
"We are the first people in Noble County to sell our working mineral rights," Kerri Bond explained.
Those mineral rights are leased to Antero Resources. The Bonds signed their first lease in 2013, at the beginning of the fracking boom. Then two years later, the family was forced by the state to sign another lease with Antero, which is allowed under Ohio law.
Antero's well pad sits a quarter mile uphill from the Bonds' house. Four lines extract gas from under the property, providing the Bonds with monthly royalty payments. The last month’s royalty check was $42,000.
So, why would someone forgo that kind of money, leave their farm, and their family? The Bonds say the gas industry that has made them money, has also sullied their land, water and air.
"It's like fighting the most powerful people in the world and you still can’t win," Jodi Carter said.
A Family Looking For Help
The natural gas industry has since built up around them. The Bonds' rural home is now in the midst of 123 producing gas wells within five miles of their house, plus six compressor stations.
The Allegheny Front confirmed that the Bond family made numerous complaints to various state agencies, concerning well pad noise and bright nighttime lights, and that gas development was polluting the air and water, and harming their health.
"Every tree in the yard was dying, my cats died, my chickens died, we got sheep dying," Kerri Bond claimed.
Bond complained to the state about her family getting odd rashes, headaches and dizziness. She said her grandson developed a breathing problem. She feared high levels of radiation.
Bond complained to the Ohio Department of Health, but its testing found no radiological health hazard.
She complained to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA).
"They came in finally with repeated calling," she said.
The OEPA declined to comment, but sent their investigative report to The Allegheny Front. The report clarified that while the agency has no authority to regulate noise or light pollution, it tested air quality at the well pad, and on the Bonds' property. Antero was allowed to test at the same time.
Antero declined an interview, because the Bonds have a lawsuit pending against the company unrelated to the environmental claims.
The OEPA found leaks from the well pad equipment of benzene and volatile organic compounds, but at levels allowed under Antero's permit.
The OEPA found that the chemical leaks did not create a health hazard. But growing body of evidence shows symptoms similar to the Bonds are associated with gas development.
"I really feel like we were let down by everybody in Ohio," Kerri Bond said.
Then, in January 2018, a pipeline exploded in Noble County, creating a fire on a hillside that the Bonds watched from their window.
"Jeff and I both looked at each other and we’re like who do we call? What do we do?" Bond remembered. "You don’t know whether to pick up your stuff and run for your life."
A year later, in January 2019, another pipeline exploded in Noble County. Two people, including a 12 year boy, were injured.
Natural Gas Helps Rural Economic Development
County leaders do say they hear some complaints about the industry.
"But I hear far more positives than negatives," said Noble County Commissioner Brad Peoples.
Many landowners, including one school district, are thankful for the oil and gas development, according to Peoples, as are many business owners.
"My wife and I own a pizza shop and our business exploded with the oil and gas industry," Peoples said, "So I wouldn’t have a bad thing to say about it."
Noble County has gone from one hotel to four. They're getting a Taco Bell. Even more important to Peoples, the community has an industry to build around.
"In a county that’s this small, if you kind of take up the cross for economic development without the oil and gas industry, what would you target?" Peoples asked.
A report by the industry group, Energy In Depth, finds that from 2011 to 2015, fracking companies in Ohio paid $43 million in property taxes to six Eastern Ohio counties, including Noble.
But Peoples said he’s heard about damage from the industry. "You talk to somebody that lives on a township road that connects to state roads where water trucks have traveled 18 times a day, and it's destroyed roads," he said.
Thousands Of Complaints
The Allegheny Front analyzed complaints made to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) between 2009 and 2018, and found 2,906 complaints were specifically about the oil and gas industry statewide.
Around 2012, one of the early boom years for Ohio's shale development, the number of complaints about the oil and gas industry peaked at 467. The next year, ODNR started new categories of complaints about the industry that mirror the problems reported by Darla McConnell in Jefferson County.
"It has been a complete nightmare," McConnell told The Allegheny Front. "The noise, the dirt, the traffic, the speeding, the trucks…the lights, the horns, the backup beepers, because it’s so close to my house."
McConnell is one of more than 100 people The Allegheny Front called from ODNR complaint list.
Rules in Ohio say in rural areas like this, a well pad can be as close as 100 feet from a house – that's less than a third of a football field. In Pennsylvania, a well pad is required to be five times further.
McConnell complained that 10 to 15 semi-trucks would sit idling on their rural road. Trucks knocked down her mailbox and ran her pregnant daughter's car into a ditch.
"It's been so bad, I wanted to put the house up for sale," she said. "But you’re not going to be able to sell it, because nobody is going to want to live with this crap going on."
ODNR does not regulate traffic from the oil and gas industry. McConnell claims she couldn't get any help.
"I have called so many different people, to try to get something done," she said.
Of the 26 people The Allegheny Front interviewed, 18 said they were not satisfied with the state's response to their complaints. They told stories about their water turning orange overnight, about piles of dirt being dumped in farm fields, about sulfur smells, and fish kills.
Mark Bruce, administrative officer with ODNR, says the agency always responds to residents' concerns.
"We work to achieve resolution with every issue raised by the public," Bruce said. "Sometimes the result may not be what the citizen expected but we're confident in saying it's only after a thoughtful and thorough examination of the situation at hand."
"I have not received the first call about a concern in that area," said state Sen. Steve Wilson (R-Maineville), chair of the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee. "We would never not listen to something of that nature."
He said since he has been chair of the energy committee starting in 2019, no one has proposed legislation to address complaints about the industry. He credits fracking for lowering the cost of energy in Ohio, and "at the end of the day that is what the consumers want," Wilson said.
Ohio Regulators Feel The Boom
Long-time environmental attorney Rick Sahli, based in Columbus, says fracking took Ohio by surprise. He described drilling in Ohio as a mom and pop industry before hydraulic fracturing.
"The first fracked well came into Ohio’s eastern border in 2010, and all of it changed overnight," Sahli said.
Since 2010, around 2,600 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the Utica and Marcellus shale in Ohio, according to ODNR's website. And federal energy statistics show that the state's production of natural gas jumped too – from 78 million to nearly 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas between 2010 and 2016.
The ODNR's budget ballooned too. After state lawmakers created new fees on the oil and gas industry in 2010, revenue from the ODNR's Oil and Gas Fund, which pays for the agency's work regulating the industry, jumped from $7.2 million to $75.56 million from 2012 to 2018.
According to ODNR data sent to The Allegheny Front, the agency started adding "mineral resource inspectors" to regulate the new gas development. The number of inspectors hit a peak of 44 in 2016. But now its back down again. As of May 2019, there were 34 inspectors, two more than in 2012.
Mark Bruce of ODNR stressed that the actual staff that can perform field inspections of oil and gas operations is more than twice that number and includes regional and district supervisors, program managers, emergency operations coordinators and engineers.
According to Bruce, the agency has also added new programs in response to the fracking boom, including emergency response, seismic surveying and engineering. He also points to Ohio's inspection requirements during well construction as a national model.
"We're proud of the way our division has grown to oversee the changes experienced in Ohio's oil and gas industry over the last few years," he said.
Still Not Good Enough
But Attorney Rick Sahli counters that regulations in Ohio have not kept pace to protect citizens. And, he says it's not just how close well pads can be built to homes and schools. It's what he calls a loophole in the disclosure of chemicals used in drilling to allow for trade secrets and the lack of rules around waste from fracking.
"We have no minimum safeguards. We don't even know for the most part what standards are being applied." Sahli said.
He said that even when the OEPA tests air quality at a well pad, like the Antero pad near the Bonds' farm, and has the company fix chemical leaks, it's not good enough.
"The state’s doing nothing to deter them from misconduct," Sahli said. "Coming in after the fact and re-soldering a joint that's been leaking carcinogenic gas outside someone's bathroom window isn't the best way to attack a multinational industry."
As for Kerri Bond and her family, they say the state abandoned them. They auctioned off their house, farm and mineral rights for more than $1 million, and left Ohio.
This is part of the Allegheny Frontseries "Who's listening?" examining claims made by Ohio residents and how state regulators have responded. The series is supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Sears-Swetland Family Foundation.