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Ohio Citizens Start Their Own Fracking Health Registry



The Ohio Health Registry, started by a physician, hopes to sign up 200 people who live near oil and gas activity. Photo: Julie Grant

A dozen people are scurrying around a church basement in Youngstown, Ohio. They’re arranging tables and chairs, setting up paperwork and hanging up signs that read, “Ohio Health Registry.”

“The Ohio Health Registry is really an attempt to collect the contacts of people who live close enough to any aspect of shale development, that they might be affected,” said Dr. Deborah Cowden, a family physician from the Dayton area, who started this effort.  

Cowden drove three and a half hours east this morning to organize the registration, while others came in from Oberlin, Cleveland and Lake County to register people in Youngstown. 

“This is the medical questionnaire, and I’m going to read some instructions,” a registrar tells one person who has shown up to fill out the forms, which takes about 15 minutes. 

Dr. Deb Cowden, who is in the background facing the camera, has been leading health registry sign up events, like this one in Youngstown. Photo: Julie Grant

Participants are asked about their proximity to gas development, and about any current health symptoms – everything from levels of fatigue, nausea and asthma, to whether they have a diagnosis of cancer and their mental health – and their family health history.

Martin Senjanec, age 60, who is a truck-driver, filled out the registration forms at a similar event in nearby Lowellville. He’s heard about a new frack waste injection well being permitted near his home. “I live less than a mile from what they’re building there, and I’m worried about it,” he said.

Senjanec remembers the magnitude 3.0 earthquake near here five years ago, that Ohio regulators linked to fracking. He’s also concerned that this area has become a dumping ground for fracking wastewater, a high salinity, chemical-laced brine.

Senjanec doesn’t think the state is ensuring that his drinking water well will be protected from contamination.

“They say it’s not going to harm. I have well water, all the people around here have well water, and that’s what I’m worried about. If that hurts that…once the well is contaminated, you can’t do nothing with it,” he said.

Senjanec doesn’t know how the health registry will help. “I’m not sure, to be honest with you. It might not do anything, I don’t know,” he said.

Links Between Fracking and Health

More and more studies have been making connections between living near gas development, and the risk of some health problems, like headaches and anxietylow birth weight babies and cancer.  

Cowden wants the health registry to provide data that will help further this kind of research, as fracking continues to grow in the state.

“If we are going to do this, why are we not attempting to keep track, so that we might be able to help people if they have a problem?” she asked.

Ohio Health Officials Respond

Ohio regulators say they do respond to health concerns. But Rebecca Fugitt, assistant chief of the Bureau of Environmental Health and Radiation Protection at the Ohio Department of Health, says they don’t get many complaints from citizens about the fracking industry.

“It’s less than five a year,” she said. “Really, we don’t get very many.”

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates the oil and gas industry, also gets few health complaints from people living near these operations. The Allegheny Front analyzed thousands of complaints by citizens to ODNR between 2009 and 2018, and found just ten reporting headaches, rashes and breathing problems. But ODNR did receive 438 complaints about odors, according to The Allegheny Front’s research. Certain odors can indicate pollutants in the air. 

Fugitt says the health department does respond to citizens who think pollution from oil and gas development, or anything else, is harming their health.

“We work with them on a case by case basis to investigate their complaint,” she said. “And then if necessary we coordinate with other state agencies to collect environmental data as needed to respond to their concerns to determine if they have been exposed to any contaminants.”

Fugitt says Ohio tracks various health statistics, just not specifically in relation to fracking activity.

Advocates Say Responding to Complaints Is Not Enough

But some health advocates say Ohio Department of Health’s efforts to respond to individual complaints is not enough. 

“I’ll tell it like it is, I think it’s shameful,” said Raina Rippel, who runs the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. 

Rippel wants the government to pro-actively collect community-wide health data on people in shale gas communities, so it can better regulate the industry, and protect public health.

Pennsylvania and Colorado do have registries for people living near the oil and gas industry to report their health concerns. But Rippel says these efforts are inadequate.

So her organization started a national health registry for fracking in 2017. An analysis of the first 100 to register found that people living within a quarter-mile of a gas development were more likely to report coughs, headaches and anxiety, compared with those a mile or more away. 

 She says this data should be collected in a more systematic way.

“We have to do our best to fill in the gap,” Rippel said. “I think that this is really us, these small groups, these groups that don’t have a lot of resources, doing the work we know needs to be done. Hopefully, the states and/or the federal agencies will ultimately pick up the ball that they’ve dropped.”

Marcellus Drilling News, an industry publication, criticized Rippel’s project, writing that it encourages people to blame every headache and cough on gas development.

Providing Data for More Research

The group behind the Ohio health registry plans to offer its database to scientists.

“We’re actually a little more than just a registry because we’re also collecting baseline health data,” said organizer Deb Cowden.

Researchers say there could be some use for this data, but there is concern about the validity of citizen-led health registries.

Brian Schwartz, Professor of Environmental Health and Engineering, Epidemiology and Medicine at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose research has found an association between fracking and exacerbation of asthma in nearby residents, would be concerned that participants in the health registries might not be representative of the community at large.

“Do registry members represent all persons in an area, all affected persons in an area, or just a very selected subset of persons in an area?” he asked in an email to The Allegheny Front.

Elise Elliott is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, whose study found a link between how close people in Ohio live to unconventional gas wells and reported health symptoms, like stress and fatigue. 

She says health registries can still be helpful. 

“These types of studies really help with hypothesis generation,” Elliott said. But to be useful to researchers, she said, “It really matters how the data is collected and what kind of data is collected.”

The group in Ohio is not directly working with researchers in its data collection. But Deb Cowden says it is being done with researchers in mind, to be helpful to them. 

Her registry so far has collected information from about 65 people, and with more events like the one in Youngstown, is hoping to reach 200 by the end of the year.

This article was originally published by the Allegheny Front.

This is part of the series, “Who’s listening?” examining claims made by Ohio residents, and how state regulators have responded, supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Sears-Swetland Family Foundation.

Check out the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s series Human Toll on the health impacts of fracking.

Who's Listening?

Some Ohio Citizens Who Complained about Oil and Gas Feel ‘Abandoned’ by the State



Kerri Bond and Jodi Carter. Photo: Brian Peshek/For The Allegheny Front

This is part one in a 5-part series originally published by The Allegheny Front titled, “Who’s listening?” examining claims made by Ohio residents, and how state regulators have responded, supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Sears-Swetland Family Foundation.

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 forty 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 (pictured above) 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.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik/Louisville Public Media with data from FracTracker Alliance

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.

Gas Development Is Helping Rural Economic Development

County leaders do 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.”

Thousands of Complaints from Ohio Residents

The Allegheny Front analyzed complaints made to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources between 2009 and 2018, and found 2906 complaints were specifically about the oil and gas industry statewide.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik/Louisville Public Media

Around 2012, one of the early boom years for Ohio’s Shale development, the number of complaints about the oil and gas industry peaked. By 2013, the 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, its required to be five times further. 

McConnell complained that ten to fifteen 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.”

The 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.

The Message Hasn’t Gotten to Some Columbus Leaders

“I have not received the first call about a concern in that area,” said Ohio Senator Steve Wilson, 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.

A Booming Industry

Long time Environmental Attorney Rick Sahli, based in Columbus, says Ohio’s government has not taken a strict stand to protect people from the oil and gas industry.

“There is no system anywhere in our government that can come to those peoples’ aid and it’s just wrong and it’s the reality,” Sahli said.

Sahli described drilling in Ohio as a mom and pop industry before hydraulic fracturing, but then “the first fracked well came in to Ohio’s eastern border in 2010, and all of it changed overnight,” he said. 

Since 2010, more than 2,600 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the Utica and Marcellus shale in Ohio, according to the ODNR 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.

When state lawmakers created new fees on the oil and gas industry in 2010, they didn’t anticipate the windfall it would create. Revenue from the ODNR’s Oil and Gas Fund, which pays for the agency’s work regulating the industry, ballooned from $7.2 million in 2012, to $75.56 million in 2018.

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.

For Some, It’s Not Good Enough

Kerri and Jeff Bond in front of their house. The auction brought in more than $1 million. Photo: Brian Peshek

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 multi-national 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 a million dollars, and left Ohio.

Data analysis assistance provided by Susan Kirkman Zake, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University. Anna Huntsman of Kent State University and Jack Austin, intern from the University of California, Berkeley assisted in calling the complainants from the ODNR complaint log. 

The story was corrected to reflect accurate revenue information for the Oil and Gas Fund and updated on July 31, 2019 to include comments from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, provided after the story was originally published.

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