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Community's concerns prompt changes at Oberlin natural gas plant

The City of Oberlin wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2030. While a new natural gas plant in town is a promising step forward, the facility is producing unanticipated problems that have the community concerned.

Ideastream Public Media’s Stephen Langel has more about how an effort to reduce greenhouse gases has led to an unexpected increase in noise pollution. He spoke with Ideastream’s Glenn Forbes about what's being done to fix the issues.

FORBES: At the heart of this issue is the Lorain Renewable Natural Gas Facility in Oberlin — what can you tell us about their work.

LANGEL: The facility converts gas from the nearby Republic Services Lorain County Landfill into renewable natural gas.

Energy Development LLC, the owner and operator of the facility, said the plant will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 55,000 tons annually once fully functional in 2024.

FORBES: But there are concerns with noise pollution at the site?

LANGEL: Right, I toured the site late last week and spoke with Oberlin City Council President Bryan Burgess and community member Charly Steinbrenner.

Burgess said the noise from the plant continues day and night, disturbing the entire community.

“It’s pervasive," Burgess said. "It’s in their house. They can’t get away from it."

He added the disturbance was a surprise as EDL made no mention of this noise in its permits.

The noise “kind of permeates your house and reverberates and gets into your head," Steinbrenner added. "It’s very irritating.”

The company responded to these concerns at an Oct. 2 city council public meeting where EDL North America CEO Rick DiGia pledged to solve the problem. The company will add new sound controls, undertake additional noise pollution testing and will reduce operations until the issue is addressed, including shutting the plant down this upcoming weekend.

But DiGia admitted the problem should have already been resolved.

“It's just taking too long. Where our contractor could move faster, we're actually taking matters into our own hands and doing things that our contractor hasn't done yet to accelerate this activity," DiGia explained.

New sound control measures include insulation around pipes, duct sound baffles, sound blankets and sealing indoor pathways to reduce sound travel. DiGia added that an acoustic engineer started studying the sound levels Oct. 3 to determine other solutions.

FORBES: Are there any other concerns with the facility?

LANGEL: Yes, both community members and the Ohio EPA have raised questions about the flames venting from the top of the plant.

According to the plant’s permit, the flames were expected to happen infrequently for short periods of time, but Burgess said that has not been the case.

“We certainly weren’t expecting it to be running 24 hours a day for 10 weeks now," Burgess said.

Burgess, who lives near the plant, also said he hears the sound from the plant and sees the flames and periodic smoke from the venting from his backyard.

"My house is one block from this thing," he said. “I see the glow over the trees all the time.”

Ohio EPA responded to the flaring with a notice of violation Sept. 26 requiring EDL to provide a compliance plan, corrective actions and a timeline for this within 14 days of receiving the notice.

FORBES: Does this represent a health concern?

LANGEL: Not according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

"We're not concerned that there are health implications," said Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel. "There are no air toxins. There's nothing that would present a health risk."

Burgess agreed.

“We believe the facility is safe. Noisy, but safe," he added.

DiGia told the city council Oct. 2 the company is working with the Ohio EPA and EDL’s equipment manufacturer to address the violation.

“We're looking to refine flare operations, not only to be in compliance with Ohio EPA, that's a must, but also to make sure it's running right that we're not impacting the local community," DiGia said.

Overall, the Ohio EPA, the city council and the company argue the facility’s benefits outweigh any short-term concerns.

"They're replacing dirtier technology with cleaner technology," Vogel said. "Big picture, I think that's important to keep in mind, that this is a net positive."

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.