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Poison Gas Continues to Threaten Residents

State Ignores Call to Remove Hazardous Operations from Neighborhoods

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

MANISTEE -- Last October nine Manistee County residents were overcome by chemical fumes from an oil storage installation and received emergency hospital treatment. Victims reported they suffered from nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pains, numbness, and headaches. It is the second major accident in Manistee County involving injuries to the public from oil industry operations in as many years.

Rick Henderson, the Department of Environmental Quality's district geologist in Cadillac, said a holding tank filled with oil overflowed in Filer Township, releasing volatile "petroleum distillates" into the atmosphere. The state ordered four oil wells owned by Denver-based Michigan Production Company to be temporarily shut down while geologists and physicians from the state Department of Community Health investigated the causes of the leak and the injuries.

Sudden Symptoms

Among the compounds that state physicians are studying as the cause of the illnesses is hydrogen sulfide (H2S). A byproduct of oil and gas drilling that is as poisonous as cyanide, H2S is recognizable in trace amounts by a distinctive rotten egg odor but at higher levels it deadens the sense of smell.

Rescue workers from Filer Township, who arrived at the scene soon after the leak was reported, measured H2S in the atmosphere at concentrations of five parts per million, enough to cause headaches and other symptoms. But state physicians, who interviewed victims, said it was not clear which of the many chemicals that evaporated from the leaked oil, including H2S, caused the illnesses. The Health Department is completing its report on the accident, which is expected to be made public early in 1999.

The most seriously injured was Larry DeRooy, whose home with his wife and two children is near the holding tanks. He collapsed in his driveway before being taken to the hospital.

"At first it was a bad smell, and then I was light-headed and my chest started hurting real bad, and my legs didn't feel like they were there," Mr. DeRooy told a reporter for the Ludington Daily News. "My tongue and throat swelled up and it was hard to breathe. And my stomach, I was retching so hard but nothing was coming up. It felt like my feet were going to come up."

The symptoms reported by residents are strikingly similar to those suffered by 11 people in Manistee Township after an H2S poisoning in the summer of 1996. Maintenance workers released a cloud of natural gas containing high concentrations of H2S, which then drifted into nearby homes and businesses.


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