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For Some, Shale Gas Boom’s a Headache

At his property line, Frank Brothers holds a sound meter reading 86 decibels. The noise runs 24/7.
At his property line, Frank Brothers holds a sound meter reading 86 decibels. The noise runs 24/7.

Frank and Theresa Brothers have lived on their Carroll County property for 25 years, mostly in a trailer. Eleven years ago, they saved up enough to build a house.
Their road is essentially an Amish highway. Horse hooves clip-clop as buggies go by.

But you can’t hear them anymore. And all the animals the Brothers liked to watch? They’re gone, too.

"This scared them away," Frank Brothers nearly shouts over the loud industrial hum as he stands in his front yard.

At his front property line, he points across the road at a natural gas compressor station, a colorful tangle of tubes and tanks – and two very big engines.

"It’s been months and months since we’ve seen deer here. Normally, you’d see them every two days," he says.

Pipelines need compressors every 50 to 100 miles, to help move oil and gas from wells to refineries. These were built by Blue Racer Midstream, a joint venture of Caiman Energy and Dominion.

The Brothers say the 24/7 noise keeps them from opening windows or using their yard. Sometimes, the pictures on their walls rattle.

What Blue Racer has done to their property value and quality of life isn’t neighborly, but it is legal.

"The situation with townships in Ohio is that their powers to zone are very limited," says Todd Hunt, a land use attorney at Walter Haverfield, a Cleveland law firm. He says cities and villages can offer some protections. But state law exempts public utilities from most oversight by unincorporated townships, like the one the Brothers live in.

On interstate pipelines, compressor stations need federal review, which includes community input. The feds can set limits on nuisances like noise.

But the Brothers have fallen through a regulatory hole. They’ve contacted the state EPA, the Department of Natural Resources, their township trustees, and an attorney. All have said their hands are tied.

What’s left is pleading with the company.

" I always tell them right off the bat, ‘You know, be careful where you’re putting the compressor stations,' says Jack Cera, a state representative from Belmont County. Last year, he intervened to keep Spectra Energy from putting compressors near a dozen Mt. Pleasant homes. Because the plan needed federal approval, Spectra had an incentive to listen.

But, Cera says, "What we’re seeing now are a lot of intrastate pipelines and gathering lines, which don’t go through the same lengthy process. You know, that’s just really starting to take off."

Cera says most companies will work with the public. But often, they don’t have to.

Which brings us back to Frank and Theresa Brothers. They say calls to Blue Racer have yielded no change since the compressors started running in March. They turned down a buyout offer they say was below their property’s appraised value.

Company spokeswoman Casey Nikoloric confirmed the buyout discussions, but not the offer amount.

"We’re taking every step possible, within reason of course, to mitigate the noise at the site," she says.

"I’ll be honest with you – I’ve never heard of a facility that’s 80 db at a residence," says Steve Morgan, executive vice president of Noise Solutions, an Alberta-based company whose business it is to make heavy industry quieter. He says the sound levels at the Brothers’ – 79 decibels at their front door, 87 at the front property line – are extreme. Significant mitigation is possible. It’s just really pricey.

"It can be upwards of a million dollars for one of these sound walls to go around a facility," he says.

That’s no doubt why Noise Solutions’ business is booming. Morgan says 60 percent is from the Utica and Marcellus shale gas industry, mostly compressor stations. He says in Ohio and Pennsylvania, most of that business is voluntary – companies choosing to be better neighbors. Thirty to 40 percent is for regulatory compliance.

Morgan says as the industry matures, rules on disturbances like noise likely will, too. That’s already happened in Colorado.
In Ohio, he says, "Everybody is just so happy that the jobs are coming, that, you know, it will take a little while for all those jobs to get filled and then people start to step back and go, ‘Oh, this really is impacting us in other ways.’"

This story was supported by a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.