After two years of organizing by citizens and local governments, the Department of Environmental Quality
is drafting new regulations to reduce the risk that people will be harmed by poisonous hydrogen sulfide (H2S),
a byproduct of oil and gas drilling.
The DEQ's proposed new rules require exploration and drilling companies to:
•Report accidents to state agencies and local governments in a more thorough manner.
•Provide the DEQ and local governments with clear emergency response action plans, including up-to-date
phone numbers for company personnel, accurate information about H2S content in wells, pipelines, and
processing plants, and accurate maps detailing their location.
•Update emergency response information any time a change in operation, management, or personnel is made.
During a public hearing in Cadillac last July, industry executives expressed their support for the regulations,
which could go into effect this fall.
The Institute also expressed support, but noted that the state still needs to establish a public health exposure
limit for H2S. Such a limit should bar wells and installations that contain dangerous levels of H2S from
At the request of the DEQ, the Michigan Environmental Science Board is studying the human health risks
associated with exposure to low levels of H2S. The DEQ says it will use the science panel's findings to establish
a new "public exposure standard for hydrogen sulfide in ambient air that must be met by all oil and gas
The science board is expected to conclude its work before the end of the year. The DEQ has not determined
how the new standard will be structured, or when it will go into effect. DEQ officials said public hearings are
Steady Gains for Citizens in Drilling Zones
Hydrogen sulfide is a hazardous and explosive chemical compound, similar to cyanide, that is heavier than
air. Even at relatively low concentrations it can cause serious injury. It is recognizable in trace amounts by a
distinctive rotten egg odor, but as concentrations rise it deadens the sense of smell and is not detectable.
The citizen activism exposed differences within the oil and gas industry. The Michigan Oil and Gas
Association insisted that no changes in state policy were necessary and that residents exaggerated the threat
from H2S. However, executives from Shell Oil and other large producers said they were distressed by the
state's reluctance to take action, and privately encouraged the DEQ to strengthen its public health policy.
The galvanizing event for the grassroots movement was a 1996 accident in the Parkdale section of the city
of Manistee, in which 11 people were injured by a release of H2S from a natural gas well. The resulting
movement to strengthen the state's safety regulations has spread from Manistee and Mason counties in the
northwest Lower Peninsula to Oakland and Wayne counties downstate.
With the help of several lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), State Rep. Karen
Willard (D-Algonac), and State Rep. Tom Alley (D-West Branch), citizens have gained strength locally:
•In April, the Manistee County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution asking the state to deny
any new oil and gas permits until public safety measures are in place.
•In June, the Filer Township Planning Commission approved a new amendment to its zoning ordinance
that requires oil and gas companies to conduct a thorough public health and safety analysis before receiving
local construction permits. The intent of the ordinance is to require energy companies to prove that accidents at
their installations will not sicken residents.
•In August, Manistee Circuit Court Judge James M. Batzer issued an order that permanently shut a natural
gas well in Filer Township that contained 43,000 parts per million of H2S, a concentration 100 times higher
than the lethal level.
In short, county, township, and court officials are consistently rejecting the oil and gas industry's position
that local oversight is unnecessary and would hurt economic development.
CONTACTS: Harold Fitch, chief, Geological Survey Division, Department of Environmental Quality, 517-
334-6923, fax 517-334-6038. The DEQ's proposed regulations are posted on the Geological Survey Division's
web site, <www.deq.state.mi.us/gsd>; Jim Olson, attorney for Filer Township, 616-946-0044; Sharlene Wild,
chairman, Manistee County Board of Commissioners, 616-889-3416.