Community-led science has found heavy air pollution in Ohio County as a result of fracking

Community-led science has found heavy air pollution in Ohio County as a result of fracking

Sensors determine lost emissions from expensive EPA tools

Some residents of eastern Belmont County are suffering from headaches, fatigue, nausea, and burning sensations in their throats and nose. These symptoms were suspected to be due to air pollution from the prevailing fracking facilities in the area, but regulators dismissed and downplayed their concerns.

With technical support from volunteer scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, MIT, and the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, local promotion teams have created their own network of low-cost sensors. The three EPA sensors in the region did not show a specific picture: the sensors revealed air pollution levels and correlations between local peaks and health impacts.

The results were published in the journal today Letters of Environmental Research.

Volunteer scientist Yuri Gorby in Belmont County, Ohio, with one of the low-cost air pollution sensors used to create a more accurate picture. (Leatra Harper / Freshwater Accountability Project)

Located in an Appalachian Valley, Belmont has grown with new natural gas extraction and processing infrastructure. It is well known that fracking emits contaminants such as particles and volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene, which have been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular health problems. Lung and bronchial cancer has become the leading cause of cancer death in Ohio. A 2017 Yale Public Health analysis confirmed the need for additional monitoring and regulation of chemicals related to the unusual development of oil and gas.

Concerned Ohio River Residents Concerned Ohio River Residents and the Freshwater Accountability Project, wanted to set up a high-density monitoring network. After submitting a proposal to the Thriving Earth Exchange for collaboration between community teams and volunteer scientists, they were paired with Garima Raheja, a doctoral student who studies Lamont-Dohertyn air pollution.

“We realized that the Thriving Earth Exchange program will provide us with valuable support in validating the complaints we often receive from those living near sources of pollution, in a way that provides credible and viable data to improve regional air quality,” said Lea Harper. Managing Director of the Freshwater Accountability Project.

With the advice of Raheja and other scientists, community members purchased 60 low-cost sensors to monitor airborne particles and volatile organic compounds. They then identified the areas of greatest concern, and hired residents to install and maintain sensors in the courtyards, churches, and schools in those areas.

Clouds gather over the Caithness Energy Guernsey Power Plant in Belmont County, Ohio. (Leatra Harper / Freshwater Accountability Project)

The new study presents data from the first two years of the sensor network. The group found that in many places it experienced days when air pollution exceeded the level recommended by the World Health Organization. For example, in the city of Martins Ferry, where a sensor measured 336 days, it measured dangerous levels of air pollution in those 50 days.

“It’s wild,” Raheja said, “considering it’s a clean area. I believe that any day above the WHO guidelines is worrying for such an area. “

He sees a clear link to the development of fossil fuels in the area. “If there was no fracking in this area, there would be no reason for bad air pollution. It is not an urban center. There is no car that causes air pollution or rush hour or anything like that. ”

The study compares daily averages received from citizen sensors with three EPA-related sensors. The correlation between the two was low: less than 55 percent.

“It shows that EPA monitors receive broad trends appropriately, as do annual or seasonal amounts,” Raheja said. “But when it comes to daily averages, which is what affects human health, EPA sensors don’t always capture the heterogeneous exposure that people in this area suffer.”

That’s because EPA sensors are too small and too long to take an accurate picture of air pollution levels, he said. The EPA relies on high-end monitors worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, which helps explain why the network is so scarce. In contrast, the sensors of citizen scientists cost only hundreds of dollars each, so they were able to establish a denser network.

In another aspect of the study, residents were given air pollution points on their monitors and wanted to know where they were coming from. So volunteer scientists helped model local wind patterns to determine if fracking facilities could be responsible for specific sensor vertices on specific days.

“There are many different sources around, and sometimes community activists have to choose which fight to fight first,” Raheja said. So far, residents say they are particularly concerned about the nearby Williams Compressor Station and Dominion Compressor Station.

The data has allowed community leaders to submit requests for public records regarding these operations and compliance with air quality standards, the papers note. Information from air quality sensors has also helped residents find out if they need to close windows, put on masks, or upgrade indoor air purification systems.

Community members also saw correlations between peak air pollution and headaches and nausea. For example, some people noticed bad smells and more severe symptoms in mid-December 2020. At the same time, air pollution data show a large increase in emissions.

The paper mentions community member Kevin Young. “Before, [there] there was no one to help us. None of the Ohio regulators would come to witness my wife and I became very ill to witness the events of extreme air pollution. He added: “Now that we have data to verify the harmful amount of air pollutants, it seems that regulators are taking us more seriously.”

The article states that the data provided shared language that community members could use to express complaints to the EPA, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and the Ohio Department of Health. Regulators are beginning to notice; Local activist Jill Hunkler was invited to testify in April 2021 before the U.S. House of Representatives Environment Subcommittee.

Scientists and community teams hope to continue working together. They are currently applying for grants to expand the sensor network and are networking with other concerned community groups, some as far away as the famous Louisiana Cancer Alley, who want to know more about how to start similar programs.

“Community-led science and community activism, especially when working with academic scientists, can be very powerful in doing what regulatory agencies cannot do,” Raheja said.

The authors of the study include: Leatra Harper and Yuri Gorby of the Freshwater Accountability Project; Ana Hoffman of Carnegie Mellon University; Lyssa Freese of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Brendan O’Leary of Wayne State University; Nathan Deron of the Environmental Health Project; Shannon Smith and Ted Auch of the FracTracker Alliance; Melissa Goodwin of the American Geophysical Union Thriving Earth Exchange; and Daniel M. Westervelt of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.


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