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When Energy Companies Are Bad Neighbors

Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Theresa Brothers' noise meter hits 81 decibels as she holds it up outside of her rural Ohio home. She and her husband Frank, left, owned this property for 30 years before a noisy compressor station moved in across the street.

The constant, loud thrum of engines at an oil and gas compressor station permeates the air as I stand on the grassy lawn of Frank and Theresa Brothers, in Carroll County, Ohio.

The setting is rural; fields, forests, an Amish man in a surrey trotting by -- but the noise is industrial.

The Brothers bought this property three decades ago. For fifteen years, they lived in a trailer while they saved up enough cash to build their dream home -- a modest property, but with enough room for them and their three children. They've lived in that home for 11 years. Six months ago, the compressor station moved in.

"Before, it was as quiet as a mouse," said Frank Brothers.

Now, it's anything but. Across the road, just 100 feet from the edge of the property and about 350 feet from the Brothers' house, two 1,500-horsepower engines thrum constantly. Brothers said he's been told another two are coming.

While I'm at the house, traveling through Ohio with a group of journalists learning about shale drilling in the area, the noise sits at around 80 decibels; akin to having a garbage disposal run constantly. (To listen to some examples of various decibel levels, check out this online noise meter from the Centers for Disease Control).

Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC
A compressor station owned by Texas company Blue Racer sits 100 feet off the property of Frank and Theresa Brothers, in rural Carrollton County, Ohio. The noise at their house is constant at 80 decibels, sometimes more.

The industrialization of rural landscapes and communities is a theme common to oil and gas patches across the nation, from Ohio to Colorado. Truck traffic goes up on rural roads, farmers have well pads constructed amidst their pastures, rents skyrocket and town services are stretched.

Such changes are inevitable when drilling comes to town, but state and local regulations play a significant role in determining how they play out on the ground. In Colorado, relatively new state rules provide for a 500-foot setback from residences for drilling and production facilities, including compressor stations. The state also regulates noise; from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. maximum decibel levels for a facility operating in a residential, rural or agricultural area are set at 55, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. the max is 50 decibels.

Ohio has no such rules at the state level, and rural Carroll County, where the Brothers live, lacks zoning regulations that would otherwise regulate the compressor station's siting. The couple, emotional when asked if they plan to stay in their home, said they were nearing a breaking point, and had considered selling.

"This is where we were going to die," said Theresa Brothers.

The couple believes the noise has dramatically reduced their property value; they are holding out some hope that Blue Racer, the company that owns the compressor station, might want to purchase their land.

At times, the Brothers said, the noise around their home has reached 100 decibels. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health recommends that workers and others in loud environments not be exposed to sounds of over 85 decibels for longer than an 8-hour period.

Texas company Blue Racer is a $1.5 billion joint venture between two other energy companies, with an air pollution permit from Ohio EPA [.pdf] for the operation of this station. As far as the Brothers know, the facility has not done anything against laws or regulations. Nor has it made any effort to mitigate the noise with sound barriers, or, during construction, to set it further back from the road.

As Frank Brothers said: "These people aren't very nice neighbors."

When asked about the situation, Mike Chadsey, a spokesman for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said that the oil and gas industry has a responsibility to be a good neighbor. Some companies, Chadsey said, are better at that than others.

The oil and gas industry sounds a constant drum trumpeting the benefits it brings to communities -- jobs, money, development. But as long as it continues to create cases like that of the Brothers, the energy industry -- and those that regulate it -- will likely never gain the trust of many members in the communities in which it operates.

Because as a homeowner, whenever you hear a story like that of the Brothers, the logical next thought is: Could this happen to me?

Editor's Note: Reporter Stephanie Paige Ogburn traveled in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio on an Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources fellowship to see the effects of the energy boom in the east first hand. Her dispatches compare the boom there, with the boom right here in Colorado. You can follow Stephanie on Twitter, @spogburn.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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