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Investigator Exclusive: Drilling for disaster near homes and schools?

2:49 PM, May 18, 2010   |    comments
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While state officials say a disaster like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico couldn't happen in Ohio because operations here are a fraction of the size, a Channel 3 News investigation found that even smaller wells can lead to large problems.

They include explosions, water pollution and leaks that release hydrogen sulfide, a naturally occurring gas that can kill in concentrated doses.

Opponents said that's because gas and oil companies are able to drill wells 150 feet away from homes, businesses and even schools.

"Oil and gas drilling is an industrial function and where you drill in residential areas close to homes, you increase the risk of public safety," said state Sen. Tim Grendell (R-Geauga).

"It's just reckless to allow that to happen so close to people's homes."

The Ohio Oil and Gas Association declined to comment.

But officials at the state Department of Natural Resources, which regulates oil and gas drilling, denied that drilling is dangerous so close to homes.

"I do feel it's safe," said Richard Simmers, the department's statewide enforcement manager. "But the law has to be properly enforced by us and followed by companies."

Simmers, however, acknowledged that a lack of regulators has forced the state to inspect drilling at only the most dangerous times.

He also said there's no law requiring regulators to do annual inspections of wells after they're installed and pumping gas and oil.

"We don't get to cover everything that we would hope to cover," Simmers said. "Most companies are pretty good. They follow the law. But if you have a company that is not following the law, then, of course, the potential for some type of incident or accident increases."

State officials say that while residents are safe, they plan to hire more inspectors after a new law raised drilling fees on companies.

Channel 3 News found a number of examples of drilling gone bad.

Two years ago, gas escaping from a poorly drilled well leaked into a Bainbridge house and exploded, knocking the home off the foundation as a family slept inside.

Even after that well was capped, gas was able to seep into a neighbor's home.

"We were out of state at the time," said Irving Mesmer. "A neighbor called and here my house was 100 percent full of gas. Every night you went to bed you don't know, you weren't sure, what was going to happen."

Just this month, hundreds of gallons of oil leaked from a well into a Pepper Pike stream, officials said. It took a week to clean up the incident.

James McCartney, who's drilled more than 1,000 wells, says gas spewed unabated from a Mentor well for more than a day. Luckily, he said it didn't ignite.

"They just let it blow for over a day before it gradually settled down," McCartney said. "You'd have got a big fire...I don't know how big, but it'd have been pretty big if they'd have lit it."

Then there was a release of hydrogen sulfide gas last September that happened while a crew was trying to cap an old well in Southeast Ohio.

The gas release killed one worker and stopped driller Aaron Dumolt's hearing for an hour. Dumolt spent three weeks in the hospital.

"The guy that got killed, I went in to get him out of it and that's when I got it," said Dumolt. "You can't really know what's going to happen because, I mean, anybody who works in the oil field knows you don't know everything."

Drillers are supposed to use a mix of fluids to keep hydrogen sulfide from escaping, said Simmers, the statewide enforcement manager.

But a Lake County Health Department investigation found a Concord boy was rushed to the emergency room with breathing difficulties after drillers hit a pocket of hydrogen sulfide and it drifted into his home.

The company was "dry drilling" (using air, not fluid) at the time, the report said.

Kari Matsko, who lives a few houses down, said no one notified her of the boy's illness or the drifting hydrogen sulfide gas.

The incident prompted her to start the Northeast Ohio Gas Accountability Project to warn others about allowing drilling on their land.

"People just hear 'free gas, free money, free lunch' and they kind of sign the check without knowing the risk." Matsko said.

No argument from the Gates Mills Fire Chief Thomas Robinson, who has responded to 27 gas well incidents in four years.

He says we remain at risk until the law gets tougher.

"Those are minimum standards. We shouldn't be settling for the minimum when it comes to public safety," Robinson said.


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