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State to Strengthen Some Rules On Human Exposure to Poisonous Hydrogen Sulfide

After rejecting citizen concern, state reconsiders

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

More than a year after 11 people were injured by poisonous hydrogen sulfide (H2S) released from a natural gas well in Manistee Township, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has alerted the Legislature that it is taking steps to establish a number of significant policy reforms. Among them are to:

• Set new safety standards for building and operating pipelines that transport gas with hydrogen sulfide.

• Improve requirements for reporting H2S releases.

• Formulate new regulatory safeguards for populated areas to develop natural gas that contains H2S.

• Study adoption of a public health exposure standard for H2S.

However DEQ Director Russell Harding resisted forming a task force, which would include citizens and local government officials, to establish a new H2S public exposure standard. Moreover, neither citizens nor local governments participated in shaping any of the proposed policy changes.

The announcement of the new policies came in a letter sent last December from Mr. Harding to State Rep. Tom Alley, chairman of the House Conservation, Environment and Recreation Committee. A month earlier Mr. Alley, (D-West Branch), had called on the DEQ to establish new health standards and industry operating practices to protect the public from hydrogen sulfide.

Mr. Alley's recommendations, and those announced by the DEQ, were consistent with proposals made last summer in a Comprehensive H2S Safety Plan published by the Michigan Land Use Institute, Filer Township, the Human Health and Safety (H2S) Committee, and citizens from Mason County.

Dana Schindler, a founding member of the H2S Committee and author of a recent report on accidents involving the poisonous gas, commended what appears to be a change of heart at the DEQ about the risks from H2S. She reiterated that the H2S Committee's goal is to prohibit in populated areas wells, pipelines, and related industrial facilities containing dangerous levels of H2S. "We need to determine what the dangerous level is for the public, and Michigan has no such standard," said Ms. Schindler. "Citizens who have studied it and the professionals from the Community Health Department need to be at the table to establish the exposure standard. It can't be a DEQ internal affair."

Hydrogen sulfide, a common byproduct of energy development, is an explosive gas, similar in toxicity to cyanide, that attacks the nervous system. Recognizable in trace amounts by its distinctive rotten egg odor, H2S releases since 1986 have caused serious injury to at least 24 people in northern Michigan, five of them children. (See "Injuries to Northern Michigan Citizens From Poisonous Hydrogen Sulfide Are Increasing" in the Summer 1997 Great Lakes Bulletin).

Public concern about exposure to H2S has caused escalating tension over oil and gas development, particularly along the Lake Michigan coast.

Mr. Harding said in his letter to Rep. Alley that the DEQ has taken other administrative actions to respond to public concerns:

The DEQ is informing counties when new wells that might contain H2S are permitted.

Initial talks are under way with the Michigan Fire Chief's Association to improve how emergency personnel react to H2S incidents.

A new agreement directs the Michigan Department of Community Health to investigate H2S-related accidents that cause injuries.

"We believe that the actions accomplished and proposed provide for effective protection of public health while allowing orderly development of Michigan's oil and gas resources," said Mr. Harding.

The proposed policy changes and the administrative actions represent a distinct departure from the "we have no regulatory authority to respond" position that agency officials have maintained for more than a year.

Mr. Harding said in his letter that the DEQ will invite public comment in about six months, when the new health exposure standard and other reforms are formally proposed.

For a copy of A Comprehensive Proposal to Protect the Public From Dangerous Exposures to Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S), contact the Institute at 616-882-4723. The report is free to members, and costs $5 for non-members.

CONTACTS: Hal Fitch, Assistant Supervisor of Wells, Geological Survey Division, Department of Environmental Quality, 517-334-6923; Julie Johnson, Advocates for Intelligent Responsible Environment, 616-845-0053; John King, Michigan Public Service Commission, 517-334-6426; Dana Schindler, H2S Committee, 616-723-9766.

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