Air monitors provided to residents near Marcellus sites
Mickey Gniadek remembers the exact day when he stepped outside his Finleyville home and felt like a fish out of water. It was Dec. 4, 2013.
Gniadek, who had no pre-existing conditions, gasped for air and nearly collapsed from what he believes was a suffocating mix of gases in the atmosphere.
“When I came out the door I noticed there was a heavy white cloud that just hung across (the property). … It smelled very acidic,” said Gniadek, who lives on Cardox Road.
Gniadek never learned what caused the incident, but he hopes to glean new findings from an air-quality monitor placed inside his home. More than 100 people in Washington County have received an air monitor, free of cost, from a public health and research group called the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.
Ryan Grode, environmental health educator with the McMurray-based SWPA-EHP, said ongoing research focuses on residents who live near natural gas wells and compressor stations in Washington County and, to a lesser extent, Greene County and Morgantown, W.Va.
Grode said the group is “not really out to point the finger,” but they feel it’s important to study any potential links between Marcellus Shale industry activity and spikes in air pollution in surrounding areas.
“The important thing to know with our organization is that we’re not an activist group. … We’re actually just a public health organization,” Grode said.
Monitoring the air
The group uses Speck air monitors, which were built in Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE lab and provided to SWPA-EHP for distribution. Once an air monitor is plugged into an outlet, it takes a reading of particulate matter concentrations every second of the day for two to four weeks.
Those readings are displayed on the monitor in real time and then are transferred to a database for analysis. The results, which are provided to participating residents, show any major spikes in particulate matter and contain graphs with 30-minute and hourly averages.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, particulate matter is a “complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets” including acids like nitrates and sulfates, organic chemicals, metals and soil and dust particles.
Larger particles, or a higher concentration of particulate matter, can cause health problems when the particles enter the lungs and even the bloodstream.
Any reading above a 5,000 count for particulate matter is considered “very unhealthy” on the Speck monitor. Some participants with air monitors had results with spikes above 14,000, but Grode acknowledged that “just because it’s a spike, (it) doesn’t mean that we’re saying it’s from the industry.”
Indoor pollutants – such as cooking with oil, or vacuuming – also could be contributing factors. Grode said the group is more interested in the prolonged spikes, especially ones that occur overnight when most people are sleeping. He said, for example, a spike above 4,000 that lasts for six hours likely indicates an outside pollutant.
The group said its primary goal is to address public health. A nurse practitioner on staff visits any participating residents with medical concerns. The group also recommends the use of air purifiers to keep homes free of pollutants.
David Brown, a public health toxicologist with SWPA-EHP who works in Connecticut, said the group is looking at different factors in relation to natural gas drilling. Brown said he is comparing particulate readings near different Marcellus Shale facilities, and also analyzing variables such as proximity to industry activity and the time of day spikes occur.
“There are clearly exposures to people living near the wells, and certain well types seem to be causing more health effects than others,” Brown said.
Patrick Creighton, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said members of the industry see it differently.
“It is a provable fact that over the past few years, through regulatory advancements and the adoption of new technologies, U.S. and regional air quality is sharply improving thanks to the increased production and use of natural gas,” Creighton said in an email.
“According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, CO2 emissions are at 20-year lows, thanks in large part to natural gas development. In Pennsylvania, specifically, the updated GP-5 permit reduces emissions from compressor stations by 75 to 90 percent.”
Residents seek answers
It’s not uncommon to hear residents at township meetings complain of a “rotten egg” smell, difficulty breathing and gas flarings that release black smoke into the air.
Gniadek and his wife, Sabine, never received a definitive answer as to what transpired that day in December. Gniadek lives directly across from the Trax Farm well site operated by EQT that he said has caused him and his neighbors grief in the past.
Gniadek and others on Cardox Road were offered $50,000 from the company to resolve claims involving the gas company’s operations, including damages, annoyance, inconvenience, nuisance and pain and suffering. Gniadek said he believes it was an effort to silence them.
Gniadek refused the money, and he and his wife continue to monitor and document the air conditions along their road. A video, taken by his wife, shows black smoke coming from the well site last month.
At a January township meeting, EQT officials said their next rig would be a dual natural gas rig that would run on 70 to 80 percent natural gas, fitted with a catalyst unit, to reduce emissions.
Gary Baumgardner, who also lives on Cardox Road and has an air monitor, said the smell of diesel fuel has been most problematic.
“In the middle of winter, it got into our house where it was so bad that I called the fire department, and they wanted to put fans in our house and open the windows and (air out) our house,” he said.
Residents living near the MarkWest natural gas processing plant in Chartiers Township also have complained of “routine” flarings that release thick black smoke into the sky.
Dan Bykens, who lives next to a MarkWest compressor station, went to the hospital last week because of respiratory problems and said he was recently diagnosed with asthma.
“Everyone out here seems to be having more issues than in the past,” Bykens said, but he acknowledged he can’t prove his health problems are directly related to industry activity.
His daughter, Hayley Martin, also has an air monitor in her home, located next to Allison Park Elementary School.
Martin’s air monitor results just came back, and she said a string of spikes appeared in the results for last week, culminating in a spike of 23,653 particulates the day before her father was hospitalized. She said nearby road construction could be a factor, but many spikes occurred late at night when road work was halted.
“I can’t tell you that’s the direct result (of industry activity),” Martin said. “I can’t tell you, the doctor can’t tell you, but it’s kind of weird.”
Future of the project
The Environmental Health Project recently set up a new protocol in conjunction with Yale University to study the air quality during emergency situations, such as the incident in May when lightning struck the MarkWest plant and caused a gas leak.
Grode said the group will temporarily install air monitors capable of measuring smaller particles – volatile organic compounds – near industry sites during incidents such as leaks or explosions. The results will then be taken to a lab for analysis.
“Whenever there’s an event, we’ll try to get out as soon as we can and get those monitors out,” Grode said.
The group also plans to continue its Speck air monitor program, focusing primarily on Southwestern Pennsylvania, even though the group has received many requests to expand.
“We’ve had a lot of requests actually, all over the United States – Colorado and Louisiana,” Grode said. “There’s a lot of states that are contacting us, asking what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, trying to start their own health organization. It’s exciting for us to be part of something like this.”