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Township Overrules DEQ, Adopts Own H2S Protections

New rules protect the public

August 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Last May the board of Filer Township in Manistee County unanimously adopted a land- mark health protection program to ensure the safety of residents living and working near oil and gas installations involving poisonous hydrogen sulfide (H2S). The rigorous ordinance, the first of its kind in Michigan, comes after three years of repeated refusals by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to seriously address the problem.

The ordinance builds on the tough H2S exposure standards previously adopted by the township, and requires energy companies to:

• Conduct a health risk analysis of proposed new pipelines, processing plants, and compression stations. (Under state law, wells are the exclusive province of the DEQ.) If, in the event of an accident, the project would exceed the exposure limits, the township will deny a required land use permit.
• Implement an effective emergency warning system.
• Inform the township about hazardous materials used on the site.

Much of the oil and natural gas produced in Filer Township contains high levels of H2S, a toxic gas that is as poisonous as cyanide and attacks the nervous and respiratory systems. H2S is recognizable in trace amounts by a distinctive rotten egg odor, but at higher levels it deadens the sense of smell.

Filer's urgent need to enact a health and safety program came as alarming H2S accidents began to plague the area, sicken residents, and force hundreds of them to evacuate their homes.

Enough Is Enough
Far from supporting Filer's efforts to protect public safety, the DEQ consistently sided with the oil and gas industry to oppose and even try to intimidate local officials. Last April, for example, DEQ representatives and executives from Aztec Producing Company arrived unexpectedly at a township meeting and threatened the board with a state lawsuit if it adopted the new ordinance.

The township proceeded knowing it had made every effort since a devastating accident in 1996 to work with state regulators to improve safety rules governing oil and gas production.

At first the DEQ denied that it had the authority to protect public health. Later the agency agreed to form a working group with representatives from Filer, other local governments, and citizen organizations to draft the needed reforms. In June 1998 the DEQ released a watered-down proposal, and has taken no action on it since.

Meanwhile, the Michigan Environmental Science Board, a panel of scientists appointed by the Governor, took up the matter in May 1998 but has yet to issue any recommendations. Its H2S working group has not even met this year. -- Florence Barone/ Reported byArlinWasserman

CONTACTS:Jim Espvik, Filer Township, 231-723-3138; American Lung Assn., 800-678-LUNG; Michigan Environmental Science Board, 517-373-4960.

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