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Injuries to Northern Michigan Citizens From Poisonous Hydrogen Sulfide Are Increasing

State Routinely Ignores Dangerous Oil & Gas Accidents

June 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
and Dana Schindler
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Deliberate and accidental releases of poisonous hydrogen sulfide H2S from oil and gas installations in or near populated areas have left an ever-wider trail of injuries, emergency evacuations, livestock deaths, and fear across northern Michigan. The findings result from an investigation by the Institute and the Human Health & Safety Committee.

Many of the H2S releases, which occurred between 1980 and 1997, never were officially recorded or thoroughly reviewed by either the oil and gas industry or state regulators. They represent a significant public health problem that essentially has been ignored by state authorities. The investigation further concludes that under the Engler Administration, accidents involving H2S have become more numerous and severe.

Hydrogen sulfide is routinely brought to the surface by wells drilled into the mile-deep, energy-bearing Niagaran Salina formation. The formation runs in a diagonal strip across the northern Lower Peninsula, from Mason County to Presque Isle County. Long a source of concern due to its toxic properties, H2S is attracting even more attention since an accident last summer in Manistee Township caused 11 people to be rushed to the hospital. The accident occurred after a cloud of hydrogen sulfide, intentionally released by a work crew during a maintenance procedure, drifted from a gas well into nearby businesses.

In the months after the accident, senior industry executives were joined by state regulators in defending the industry's H2S safety record, calling it "good." Martin Lagina, Chairman of the Michigan Oil and Gas Association, repeated the point during a news briefing in the Traverse City Record Eagleoffices earlier this year. Mr. Lagina said there is no evidence that H2S represents a widespread threat to residents. "There's no story there at all," he told reporters.

The investigation by the Institute and the H2S Committee has found fresh evidence that Mr. Lagina's statement is in error. The investigation, which drew upon interviews with victims, newspaper reports, hospital records, and logs from emergency response agencies, resulted in the following conclusions:

•Since 1986, at least 24 people, five of them children, have been seriously injured during four H2S releases thus far documented in northern Michigan. All of these people required hospital treatment. Many more have suffered respiratory and skin complications, and all are bearing the psychological burden of repeated evacuations.

•The problem appears worst in Manistee and Mason counties, where at least 22 people have been injured and sought hospital treatment as a result of H2S exposure since 1994.

•Since 1980, at least 10 separate accidental releases of H2S caused at least 262 people in Manistee and Mason counties to evacuate their homes. Five of the accidents have occurred since 1995.

•Since 1994, releases of H2S from pipelines and processing plants have killed 35 head of cattle in Mason County.

Although the circumstances of each H2S release are different, a central fact is common to all: official indifference. An energy company was cited and penalized by state authorities in just one of the accidents uncovered by the investigation. The federal government requires operators to report to the U.S. Department of Transportation pipeline accidents that cause death or personal injury, or that result in more than $50,000 in damages. The Michigan Public Service Commission has similar criteria for pipelines, although the reporting threshold for monetary damage is $5,000.

The Department of Environmental Quality also requires reporting, within eight hours, "serious" spills, leaks, accidents, or incidents at wells and facilities that may cause "waste." However the rule is written with enough room for interpretation that many accidents have gone unreported.

In the first months of 1986, for example, pressure seals and safety equipment repeatedly failed on a new Niagaran oil well drilled by Jennings Petroleum near Atlanta in Montmorency County. According to court documents in a lawsuit filed in the case, the well produced millions of dollars in revenue annually, but the company decided not to spend the $25,000 it would have taken to fix the equipment.

As a result, large amounts of H2S routinely escaped, injuring on one occasion a driver who passed through a cloud. In several other incidents, H2S settled in the nearby home of Sherry and Ron Warner, seriously injuring the respiratory system of their infant daughter, Salina. The baby was hospitalized and required constant medical care. The family sued Jennings Petroleum and won an undisclosed settlement in 1989.

More recently, 11 people required emergency hospital treatment and 10 cattle died after a seal in a compressing station in Mason County's Victory Township failed near midnight on May 13, 1994.

Awakened by what they described as the jet-like roar of escaping sour gas under high pressure, neighbors roused each other by telephone, and were forced to cover their faces with towels in order to breathe as they fled their homes.

The next morning, four children entered a day care center in the basement of a home one mile south of the compressing station. Hydrogen sulfide had settled there. Almost immediately, one three-year-old boy collapsed, unconscious. A two-year-old girl lay down in a lethargic state. A four-year-old asthmatic boy had trouble breathing, severe pains in his stomach, and he vomited. A 13-month-old baby girl lapsed into unconsciousness. All were rushed to Ludington Memorial Hospital, where records show they were diagnosed with H2S poisoning. G

Dana Schindler, a resident of Manistee County's Filer Township, is a co-founder of the grassroots Human Health & Safety Committee.

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