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Putting a Face on Fracking: It All Began With a Bison (Part One)

Portage County – How did a bison named “Gentle Ben” get involved with horizontal fracturing wells? Back in June, Ben’s owner, flight attendant Beckie Dean, had some painting done at her home. At that time, she learned her pilot was having a difficult time convincing his wife to add his recently acquired eight-point buck to their home décor. Dean was more than happy to share pictures of Gentle Ben to show how seamlessly he fit with the rest of the décor in her family’s home. Dean took her time to take extensive photos of her home to share with her pilot and the rest of the flight crew.frack2Dean was lucky that Gentle Ben had prompted those photos, since a horizontal fracturing (fracking) operation came to the property right across the street from her home just a few weeks later. By late August, Dean watched in disbelief as the cracks in her once pristine walls began to multiply. By late September, she then noticed a large crack in her basement wall. As “progress” droned on at the drill site, Dean endured round-the-clock noise and methodically documented new cracks as they continued to emerge, through mortar joints and even through individual rocks in her fireplace. Her calls to the well operator, Mountaineer Keystone (MK), brought no resolution and no relief from the noise.  Dean and her neighbors were subjected to vibrations and noise emanating from the site, sounding to them like “we’re standing under a helicopter, or there’s a diesel semi truck sitting right next to your bedroom window 24/7.” The noise and vibrations continued to vibrate Dean’s home, as well as her frayed nerves, while she continued to make calls to anyone who might be able to help.

Since the industry is not regulated locally, she started with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), the state agency charged with the task of regulating oil & gas drilling. She learned that although there are easily a thousand wells in the state, the ODNR has only roughly four dozen inspectors. When she finally reached the proper person, she was told there was nothing he could do to stop the noise and vibrations.

As one month turned into two, and work at the well site continued, more cracks tunneled their way through Dean’s home and rocks were shaken loose from her fireplace. She called representatives at Ohio State Governor Kasich’s office, who were able to work with the ODNR to schedule sound tests at the site. The neighborhood breathed a brief sigh of relief when the ODNR slowed down the fracking operation for the weekend. During that time, however, equipment at the site was modified with mufflers and other sound-dampening measures in preparation for the pending sound test. And then it was back to business as usual at the well site.

So where does that leave Dean and her neighbors? Insurance agents have ruled vibrations as the cause of the damage to area homes, and denied coverage. Dean called in two structural engineers, both of whom concluded the damage to her home was not caused by “settling”. In fact, they ruled out any structural reason for the damage to her home, and confirmed the findings of the insurance agents who concluded the damage was caused by vibrations. The engineers also ruled out any other source of vibration but the hydro injection wells located 1,000 feet from her home. Today, MK continues to claim its operation has not caused these issues.

frackingMeanwhile, if homeowners like Dean chose to pay for repairs themselves, they will be hard-pressed to find someone willing to do the work. Contractors will not guarantee their work within a mile radius of an active drill site. Dean has been told that that drilling at this site, and at the additional fourteen gas and storage wells planned to be added at the site across from her home could easily continue for the next ten years. So what does that mean for Dean and her neighbors? “We are absolutely stuck,” Dean plainly states.

Any advice for those of us not yet directly affected by horizontal fracturing wells? Just wait. Mountaineer Keystone has several horizontal drilling permits in Hiram, Nelson, and Windham.

Fran Teresi, a trustee on Garrettsville’s Board of Public Affairs, spoke with a representative from Reserve Energy Exploration. His company buys mineral rights leases from individuals and other drilling companies, such as Equity Oil and Gas, and then sells them in larger units to Mountaineer Keystone for horizontal shale well drilling. The representative explained to Teresi that a “test bore”, recently completed in Windham, will determine how quickly Mountaineer Keystone moves on local drilling projects. Equity Oil and Gas projects an estimated 20 – 30 horizontal shale wells are coming to our area if all goes as planned.

Dean’s advice to area homeowners:  start a diary the day you see stakes with pink ribbons at the side of the road. Those stakes aren’t in support of breast cancer awareness; they signify that seismic testing will be conducted soon. Before testing, it is crucial for homeowners to document the condition of their  home with photos and videos. Get your water tested by an accredited lab. Be sure to document water flow through pipes and hoses, as well as taste, smell and color. Loss of pressure and potential damage to water wells may result from seismic testing and fracking.

While Dean, who, with her husband ran a gas & oil well servicing company across five states, is more familiar with the industry than the average homeowner, hydraulic fracturing is a very unique process. The techniques and the chemicals used are very different from the gas wells we’ve all grown accustomed to in our rural area. Plus, there are currently no laws in place to protect residents near these drilling sites from noise, vibrations, potentially harmful air and water pollutants. Dean urges everyone to call legislators and urge them to make necessary changes to legislation to protect communities. Regulations need to be updated, from seismic testing through to production. Dean urges the industry to, “stop until you know what you’re doing,” and doesn’t appreciate being the area’s guinea pigs. “I’m doing this because we need stronger regulations,” states Dean.

What about the quality of life in her once idyllic rural neighborhood? What was once a safe place for kids to play has changed dramatically. Until recently in Dean’s rural neighborhood, kids had been able to learn to ride bikes in the street. Today, huge tanker trucks share the road with strangers in strange vehicles, pulling over every so often to check readings on complex equipment. Testing and monitoring equipment, powered by miles of extension cords, is left along roads and in fields, exposed to both the elements and the curious hands of children. So now it’s up to us.  What will happen to our children and our communities — will they go the way of the American bison? Or as it happened with the bison, will we work together with our neighbors and our legislators to save them from total extinction?

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