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Air Quality Monitoring Ongoing in Ohio Valley

The USEPA uses National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) as a way to determine if a region is in attainment or non-attainment for air quality parameters that affect public health. NAAQS uses what are called criteria pollutants which are ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead, sufur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. These chosen pollutants are measured by the sparsely located monitors in the Valley to determine if a region is in attainment, which if not, can trigger more stringent air quality regulations. More information can be found here: The criteria pollutants are not all the toxic pollutants that can be found in the region, especially in areas heavily impacted by fracking, also called Unconventional Oil and Gas Development (UOGD). This issue, along with the few monitoring stations that are used to identify levels of harmful pollutants, can miss some the measurement of pollutants that are harmful to public health in the region and allow an area to be labeled as in attainment when there are still levels of harmful air pollution that should require more rigorous regulatory permitting requirements.

The portion of the valley targeted for the Thailand-based PTT Global petrochemical complex to take advantage of fracking in the region is designated as an attainment area, but that designation was questioned by FreshWater Accountability Project (FAP) and others because of the poor air quality in the region, especially during air inversion events. Poor air quality can be caused by fracking and frack pad operations, the many associated pipelines, compressor stations, truck traffic, processing facilities and other huge polluting facilities along the river. Other facilities that can emit harmful pollutants may not require air permits, such as frack waste processing facilities like injection wells, which are not regulated for air quality because they are classified as “de-minimis” emitters. All the industrial pollution in a region is permitted separately, and no consideration is given to the cumulative pollutant load in a region like Belmont County, the most heavily fracked county in Ohio.

That is why we examined the air pollution permit application for the proposed PTT Global ethane cracker plant, which would emit a massive additional load of toxic air pollution and greenhouse gas in addition to what is already permitted in the region. Concerns were raised that this additional toxic load could be extremely harmful to human health, especially with the many air inversions that concentrate pollutants in the valley. Knowing of the harmful health effects people have experienced because of living near UOGD, we were surprised to learn that no one was looking at actual pollution emissions to add it all together to determine cumulative emissions already being released in the region before giving the PTT Global an approved air permit. Because there is no actual baseline to determine if a major polluter such as the proposed cracker plant should be permitted, FreshWater decided to try to determine baseline amounts of toxic pollutants associated with UOGD and sought funding to do additional air monitoring in the region using community science. Funding was received from the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies to purchase air monitors to measure levels of harmful particulate matter and total volatile organic compounds such as benzene, a known carcinogen. This was made possible due to the recent availability of low-cost air monitors that have crowd-sourced capability to show results on-line. 40 low-cost monitors have been deployed, and the results substantiate concerns about air quality in the region, especially because of the huge spikes of emissions that are being identified that are also often associated with noxious smells and health impacts residents experienced and documented. Air Viz and Purple Air monitors have been deployed and here is a graph showing spikes in pollution from one monitor:

In the effort to determine sources of noxious odors and associated health impacts such as fatigue, summa canisters are also deployed to identify actual pollutant amounts, especially when there are temporary spikes in emissions which occur during compressor station blowdowns, pipeline pigging operations and other industry-related releases. We also identified harmful levels of methane entering a home through the water that was contaminated, and other possible instances of subsurface vapor intrusion that is under investigation to determine the source. Studies continue to identify the source(s) of harmful pollutants entering homes and causing harmful health impacts, and to verify the results.

For those who are living near pollution sources causing noxious smells and harmful health impacts such as asthma, it is important to document the instances along with time, date, wind direction, etc. to describe the impacts. If the Ohio EPA is called, it is difficult to get an EPA inspector with the necessary equipment to visit the home to measure actual emissions. Usually, if a resident calls the Ohio EPA to complain, no one will respond in time to capture harmful emissions with the necessary equipment. It is obvious that the Ohio EPA needs more funding for equipment and inspectors as well as a mandate to be more responsive and protective of public health, especially in heavily fracked regions. Without this, a community-driven science project can provide air monitoring as well as assistance with documenting necessary information and education about ways to protect themselves such as closing windows, using air purifiers and sometimes, leaving the home.

The American Geophysical Union developed a community-driven science protocol called the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX). FreshWater took advantage of the TEX opportunity to request scientific assistance for the baseline air monitoring project. Fortunately, two scientists volunteered to help with this project, Garima Raheja now studying at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York, and Lyssa Freese, studying at the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With their expert assistance, along with our local lead scientist, Dr. Yuri Gorby, and others such as Ana Hoffman of the Create Lab, FreshWater was able to assemble a high-functioning team of experts and advocates to interface with community members to educate and involve them in their own protection and advocacy. Through the TEX project, webinars were presented and a white paper was submitted for peer review entitled Community-Based Participatory Research for Low-Cost Air Pollution Monitoring in the Wake of Unconventional Oil and Gas Development in the Ohio River Valley - Empowering Impacted Residents through Community Science.

This community-based science project has been ongoing for two years and needs to expand to serve more impacted communities. We are seeking more community members to join our program, especially those who are experiencing adverse health issues from air pollution who would like to have air monitors to help determine sources and causes. There is a need for more Ohio Valley residents to help deploy the low-cost monitors and educate community members on toxic air emissions, how to document, and how to protect themselves. Through this program, the US EPA has paid more attention to citizen concerns. A valid case is being made that there is too much toxic pollution in the valley to allow another massive polluter like an ethane cracker plant the size of the Shell petrochemical complex that will come on line just 70 miles upstream from the proposed PTT Global cracker plant in Dilles Bottom. Through this community-driven citizen science program, it is hoped that local officials, Jobs Ohio, regulators and legislators will work to provide better protections to those living in regions of heavy UOGD and that the science will be used to hold polluters accountable for their harms as well as to inform decisions regarding the permitting of heavy polluters such as the PTT Global cracker plant.

If you would like to join this project, please contact Lea Harper at, message on the Facebook page, FreshWater Accountability Project, or call 740-208-2042.

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