Monroe County Fracking Disaster: Little progress made, few lessons learned in the year since major fracking accident in Ohio

By Melanie Houston
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Pictured to the right: Aerial shot of the fire site. This is part one of a two part series on this issue. Stay tuned for part two later this week. 

This past Sunday, June 28, marked the one-year anniversary of a fracking chemical fire at the Statoil well pad in a little town called Hannibal, Ohio. The raging fire burned for 5 days and forced 25 Ohio families to evacuate their homes.

The water used to fight the fire mixed with chemicals stored on the site and resulted in a 5-mile fish kill in a high quality stream. 70,000 fish and countless other aquatic critters were completely wiped out that day from a biocide used in the hydraulic fracturing process.

This biocide chemical, unknown to emergency responders and drinking water utility operators for 5 days into the disaster, found its way into a tributary draining to Opposum Creek. Opposum Creek leads to a drinking water intake on the Ohio River that supplies 5,300 people in New Martinsville, West Virginia.

This event shed light on what many of us have known for some time: special exemptions for the disclosure of chemicals stored and used at fracking sites can put Ohioans at serious risk. Now is the time to put an end to Ohio’s kid glove treatment of this behemoth industry.   

How the fire started

As we all know, accidents happen every day. But some activities, like hydraulic fracturing, are inherently risky, and the consequences can be devastating.

The trigger for the massive chemical fire last June was a simple equipment failure, a rupture of a hydraulic fluid tube on a vehicle or piece of equipment used during the fracking process. The broken line sprayed flammable hydraulic fluid onto hot equipment and the fire quickly spiraled out of control.

20 chemical trucks went up in flames, tires exploded, and shrapnel rained down on the site. The fire was so intense that safety officials took the precaution of evacuating an estimated 25 families living nearby. 

Where was the Ohio DNR during the response?

Sometimes we have to call out agencies when they aren’t doing their job to their full potential. ODNR was a negligent parent to the oil and gas industry on June 28 and for several days thereafter, when it really mattered. The US EPA’s Pollution Incident Report and the Ohio EPA’s more recent (Draft) District Office Investigation Report both confirm that ODNR was repeatedly missing from important “unified command” meetings in the critical early days of the emergency response efforts.

The OEC summarized these findings shortly after the event. The Columbus Dispatch also reported on the major failings of the emergency response, which included lack of appropriate equipment to spray foam on the fire and waiting 7 hours on a communications truck to sync radio communications.

In ODNR’s absence, the Ohio EPA emergency response division, US EPA, and the Monroe county EMA Director stepped up to the plate to take charge of the site, identify hazards and set tactical objectives. Still, as the primary agency charged with “sole and exclusive authority” over the oil and gas industry, this continues to raise the question of why Ohio DNR was so ill-prepared for this disaster, why they did not engage in unified command, and what they have done to date to ensure that their response to such a future accident (God forbid) would be lightyears ahead.  

Statoil, a bad neighbor

I was out of town when I first received the news from my colleagues at OEC that there was a massive fracking fire in Monroe County. OEC staff attorney, Nathan Johnson traveled down to Opposum Creek to document the fish and aquatic life carnage and he was one of the first to do so.

In the months following the event I had the chance to speak with and meet a few of the families who were evacuated that day. 

A resident named Kelly remembers her fiancé, Gus, sending her a picture of the black, billowing smoke plume coming up from the fracking well pad at about 9 am on June 28. She was at work while her fiancé and son remained in their home, a mere 600 or so feet from the Statoil well pad.

At 10 am they were told they needed to evacuate. Kelly got off work and met up with Gus and her son in Wheeling. She called all over to find a hotel but nothing was available because the hotels in the area were full of oil and gas workers. They had to make the hard decision to go back home and stay with bags packed and ready.

Can you imagine living next door to a chemical facility gone up in flames? Hearing and seeing over 30 explosions on the site of a facility with propane tanks and equipment containing radioactive material?

Thankfully, Kelly and her family were fine (relatively speaking) that night, but she spent the next several weeks trying to find out if they had been exposed to something that could have a longer-term effect on their health. She even knew what information to ask for, having previously worked for a chemical plant, but no one would answer her questions.

I also spoke with a gentleman named Ron whose children were swimming in their backyard pool when ash from the sky started raining down on them. He was very concerned about their health and whether his children were exposed to something harmful or toxic. He, like Kelly, didn’t have the answers or information that he wanted.

The Ohio EPA’s (Draft) District Office of Investigation Report on the Statoil fracking fire also highlights serious complaints from area residents. The report notes that on July 11, a local resident contacted the Ohio EPA and “indicated that she, her grandchildren, and other citizens in the area believe they may have been exposed to chemicals from the incident and are experiencing symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, etc.”  

The big question lingering, to this day, is WHY these concerned families and community members were left without answers. Stay tuned for our next update, when I’ll tell you exactly what needs to change and how you can get involved to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else. 

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Date: 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015 - 12:15pm