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U.S. Senator Seeks Investigation of Poison Gas Accidents

Manistee Township accident draws congressional interest

May 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

U.S. Senator Carl Levin has asked the Michigan Department of Community Health to investigate two oil field accidents that released poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas in residential areas, injuring 16 people. Sen. Levin said he would take federal action on the case if the state does not respond.

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a byproduct of oil and gas drilling, is a chemical of such potent toxicity that its nerve-destroying and killing power is comparable to cyanide. Although wells and processing plants containing H2S have been operating in Manistee and Mason counties for a quarter century, residents are becoming increasingly worried as more wells are drilled in residential and commercial areas.

Sen. Levin's request is the latest development in a growing debate over public safety, property rights, and government oversight.
It concerns:

1). A release of H2S in 1994 from a compressing station in northern Mason County, which caused the hospitalization of four children and an elderly woman.

2). A release of H2S in August 1996 from a natural gas well in the Parkdale section of Manistee Township, which caused 11 people to be rushed to the hospital. Several of them were left with chronic lung and nervous system damage. (See the Winter 1997 issue of the Great Lakes Bulletin).

In February 1997, the drilling of a new natural gas well sent a cloud of H2S over a Manistee County neighborhood, sending some residents fleeing from their homes. Carl Mikolajcak was in his workshop in Filer Township when he detected the distinctive rotten-egg odor. He said he got a severe headache and nausea, and his wife and granddaughter also were sickened. "If we had not been able to leave the area immediately, we could have been in real trouble," he said.

The state Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates oil and gas development, has not thoroughly investigated any of these accidents. Hal Fitch, the DEQ Assistant Supervisor of Wells, said in an interview that his agency does not have the authority to regulate on the basis of health and safety considerations.

Mr. Fitch added that in reviewing new drilling permits in residential areas, including those for wells that contain potentially dangerous levels of H2S, the agency considers the property rights of mineral owners to be paramount. "We have to be careful that we don't exclude the development of mineral interests when there is no feasible and prudent alternative," he said. "It does raise the issue of taking without compensation."

The Filer Township Board believes that the DEQ does have the authority to act in the interest of human health and safety. In January, the Township filed a lawsuit to have two wells containing high concentrations of H2S permanently plugged. The Township also has formally asked Michael Hayes Dettmer, the U.S. Attorney in Grand Rapids, to investigate the DEQ's conduct.

Other public officials also are taking note:

• The Michigan Attorney General's office requested information from the Institute on the Manistee Township accident after meeting with Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council.

• U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra and his staff have met with concerned citizens in Mason County.

• The Institute's H2S Committee brought 29 people to the State Capitol in March for a Citizens' Lobby Day. They visited the office of every state representative and senator, as well as the Governor's Office. State Rep. Karen Willard, (D-Algonac), who sponsored the group, is forming a legislative work study committee on problems associated with oil and gas development in Michigan. G

Proposed Oil & Gas Legislation

The Michigan Legislature is considering at least thirteen bills concerning oil and gas development. The bills would increase local government oversight, re-unite severed mineral rights with surface property rights, strengthen the rights of surface owners, protect sensitive natural areas from drilling, and require disclosure of post production costs in oil and gas leases.
To receive a fact sheet summarizing the proposed new legislation, contact the Institute at P.O. Box 228, Benzonia, MI 49616; Tel. 616-882-4723.


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