Compressor stations are a new flashpoint in the debate over natural gas extraction

Gas compressor station

Barry Booth says his dogs gave him an early sign something was wrong with the air at his Carroll County home, in eastern Ohio.

“The dogs stick their nose to the door, turn around and come right back in the house,” Booth says.

Ohio and Pennsylvania are centers of natural gas extraction in the US. Since 2013, pipelines, wells and compressor stations have sprouted up all over both states. Booth, who’s retired from manufacturing, didn’t have a problem with this. He’d 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. He landed on the floor, nauseated and dizzy.

“I jumped up to check on him, and then ended up beside him,” says Mary. “It was just really hard to breathe and the odor was very strong.”

The Booths say they know the cause of the problem: a compressor station built near their home. Soon after the facility was built, the Booths started having rashes, nosebleeds and headaches.

As hundreds of miles of new pipelines are laid to transport shale gas to market, compressor stations must also be built to move that gas. These units are needed every 40 to 100 miles along pipelines to re-pressurize the gas and keep it moving. About 150 compressor stations are already in place in Ohio and state officials say about 15 new ones are planned.

Like other industrial facilities, their permits allow them to emit limited amounts of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulates, among other pollutants. Ohio EPA and energy companies say the facilities are safe and well regulated.

Jimmy Stewart, president of the Ohio Gas Association and an industry spokesman says, when it comes to compressor stations, activists are making a mountain out of molehill. “Yes, there are some emissions from operating a compressor station,” he says. “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.

There has been little research on the health impacts from oil and gas development, especially research focused on just compressor stations. So how worried should people be?

Trevor Penning, who leads the Center for Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania, is trying to figure this out. Penning and some colleagues compared health trends in neighboring counties, with and without heavy gas development. They analyzed all inpatient hospitalization records between 2007 and 2011 — 92,000 records in all. Wayne County, without fracking, followed the national trend of declining hospital admissions. Susquehanna and Bradford counties, where gas extraction had taken off, saw inpatient hospitalization rates increase by about 3 percent per year.

Penning says that’s significant. “Residents who feel their health has been affected by this activity need to be listened to,” he adds.

David Brown, a public health toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a research and advocacy group, agrees. As more pipelines are built, more people outside of drilling regions now find themselves near compressor stations, so it makes sense to try to single out these facilities for research, he says.

Brown has investigated complaints from people in the town of Minisink, New York, for instance, where there is a compressor station but no other gas activity. The closest regional air sampling station, part of a federal monitoring network, showed pollution levels in compliance with federal standards. But when Brown did air monitoring in people’s homes near the compressor station, particulate matter tested higher than the regional numbers.

Brown also had residents keep health diaries, and he says there were problems. “When somebody’s child wakes up with nose bleeds in the middle of the night regularly, they know something is going wrong, even if they’re told that the child should be all right because the air standards aren’t being violated,” Brown says.

Federal standards aim to improve overall regional air quality, but are not designed to protect people from frequent, close-range pollution exposure, Brown explains. While Brown’s research project was small, he says his findings and others’ suggest compressor stations alone can be powerful polluters.

Federal studies near two compressor stations in Pennsylvania also found fine particulate matter and other pollutants at levels that could be harmful to people’s health, although those studies, too, say their findings are limited. In Pennsylvania, regulators agree more data is needed. The state plans to install more air monitors in areas with compressor stations and gas wells next year.

This article is based on a story by Joanna Richards of the Pennsylvania public radio program, The Allegheny Front. The story aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood. 

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