Washington County residents say their neighbor is noisy, disruptive and a pollutor. Their neighbor is a compressor station, and it’s a quarter-mile away.
March 9, 2020
Dave Matijevich and Robin Walker say they are picking up bad vibrations both inside and outside their rural Washington County home.
They live in Smith, just a quarter-mile west of MarkWest Energy Partners’ Three Brothers Compressor Station — too close, they say, to be safe or healthy or quiet.
The sometimes rumbling, low-frequency noise from the hilltop compressor facility can be so persistent that Mr. Matijevich, 58, and Ms. Walker, 63, say they can’t spend much time outdoors on their almost 2-acre wooded lot. The pulsing sound, they say, gives them headaches and feels like torture.
“We can’t open the windows in the summer,” he said. “It’s usually loudest at night. I hear everything — voof, voof.”
“It’s like water dripping on your forehead,” Ms. Walker added.
“This literally is driving me nuts,” Mr. Matijevich said.
After a relatively quiet week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette documented compressor station noise at Mr. Matijevich’s home on the evening of Feb. 24. The facility generated a continuous whooshing sound that also had a deep pulse, much slower than a heartbeat, like a distant bass drum or low thunder. Individuals standing in his backyard felt low but definite vibrations in the ground through their shoes.
Mr. Matijevich said those sound levels were tolerable but that the volume levels can be magnitudes higher, especially when all compressors are operating and during weekends.
The Three Brothers facility, which contains 10 compressor engines, is one of 40 such stations scattered throughout Washington County along pipelines that snake through the rolling, mostly rural landscape. The compressor stations — powered by natural gas, diesel or electricity — are necessary to filter and push the flow of natural gases from wells to processing plants.
Some studies have found that such equipment can be noisy enough to harm human health, and critics point to data showing the stations emit a host of climate and health-harming pollutants including methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and hazardous, cancer-causing compounds.
The shale gas industry has responded with other studies finding few impacts on human health from being near the compressors. The dispute seems unlikely to be resolved soon.
For the past four years, Mr. Matijevich and Ms. Walker have been voicing their concerns about noise, vibrations and health impacts related to the compressor station near their house.
Their concerns have grown, and their battle has gotten even more personal in recent weeks with Ms. Walker’s diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a blood plasma cancer that affects bones. They believe there is a possible connection between the diagnosis and the compressor station.
But proving a causation between the emissions and a myeloma diagnosis is next to impossible, and the shale gas industry denies any risks associated with its operations.
The Multiple Myeloma Foundation cites research showing higher myeloma risks are associated with exposure to benzene, among other chemicals. The state Department of Environmental Protection’s emissions inventory shows that Three Brothers has emitted 4.3 tons of benzene since it started operations in 2012, along with 183 tons of volatile organic compounds and other hazardous pollutants.
In 2018, the Three Brothers compressor station emitted 1.2 tons of benzene, making it the third biggest source of the carcinogen in the seven-county southwestern Pennsylvania region, behind only the Clairton Coke Works (15.1 tons) and the Monessen Coke Works (3 tons). Benzene emissions from the Three Brothers facility were 20 times higher than the average benzene emissions (120.5 pounds) from the 40 other compressor stations in Washington County, and totaled nearly half of all benzene emitted by those compressors.
Generally, emission totals in 2018 for Three Brothers were notably higher than average emission levels for the other compressor stations in Washington County but lower than the average for methane and nitrous oxide (NOX) releases. Compressor stations do have varying numbers of compressors, among other differences.
In a written response to questions, Jamal Kheiry, a spokesman for the Findlay, Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum Corp., owner of MarkWest, stated, “Numerous health studies have been performed at compressor stations — including our Brigich Station [in Chartiers, Washington County], indicating that they do not pose a health risk to surrounding community members or workers.”
Noting that “modern oil and gas development frequently occurs in close proximity to human populations,” a study by PSE (Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers) for Healthy Energy and including Michael McCawley of West Virginia University, said oil and gas development produces noise levels that may increase the risk of such adverse health outcomes as annoyance, sleep disturbance, and cardiovascular disease.
That 2017 study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, called for “policies and mitigation techniques” to limit human exposure to noise from oil and gas operations.
And a May 2017 study done in Doddridge County, W.Va., and published in the journal PLOS One, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science, found: “Environmental exposures from these stations, including toxic chemicals and noise, are a significant public health concern and a source of stress for nearby residents.”
Meleah Boyle, a University of Maryland researcher and the lead author of that study, said in a published interview that five out of six homes they monitored — all located within a half-mile of a compressor station — “had combined outdoor average sound levels greater than 55 decibels over a 24-hour period.”
On the cancer front, a 2007 study in Norway found an increase risk for myelogenous leukemia and multiple myeloma among petroleum workers exposed to crude oil. It concluded that “the results suggest that benzene exposure, which most probably caused the increased risk of acute myelogenous leukemia, also resulted in an increased risk of multiple myeloma.”
Blocking the vibes
The Three Brothers Compressor Station was built in 2012 on property formerly owned by Mr. Matijevich’s uncle Peter Matijevich.
In 2013, Dave Matijevich began living in the three-bedroom, one-story red brick house on Atlasburg Road; he bought it from family members in 2015, when there were fewer compressors on the hilltop.
In recent years, as the facility expanded to 10 compressors, noise and vibrations increased. He said the screened-in back porch where the family routinely relaxed while eating dinner and watching wildlife became unusable.
Smith Township’s 2015 noise ordinance prohibits loud noise levels exceeding 65 decibels but sets no limits for low-frequency noise. Another neighbor also has complained to the township about noise. The township did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.
Mr. Kheiry said MarkWest continues to abide by all local and state regulations and permits.
In a September 2018 letter to Mr. Matijevich, Christopher Rimkus, identified at that time as MarkWest’s assistant general counsel, wrote, “We appear to be at an impasse.”
“We have,” he wrote, “spent considerable time, effort, and expense to address the concerns you have raised since you moved into the residence near the station.”
MarkWest offered $15,000 to offset the costs of enclosing the back porch, but the confidential agreement that came with the money would have released the company from “all claims, demands, actions, charges, causes of action, damages, fines, penalties or other legal obligations for claims by Mr. Matijevich, including but not limited to noise, vibration and light from operation” of the compressor station.
Mr. Matijevich declined the offer.
“At this point, we don’t know what additional steps we can take to satisfy you,” Mr. Rimkus wrote in the letter. “We welcome any reasonable ideas you have that might help move us past this impasse.”
On his own, Mr. Matijevich said, he spent more than $20,000 to enclose the back porch with three-ply glass and noise-absorbing insulation — to little effect. Earplugs, he said, also don’t block the noise.
Under certain meteorological conditions, he said, compressor noise rolls off the hilltop and produces vibrations that cause ripples in the water bowl used by their six cats.
Mr. Matijevich and Ms. Walker compare the recurring smell on their property and in their home to welding fumes.
“No one was educated about this — the potential for air pollution and noise,” she said. “It’s sad. This was our little sanctuary.”
Her diagnosis has spiked their concern about living in a house directly below an industrial facility.
“I understand that we need progress,” Mr. Matijevich said, “but this has gotten out of control. They do whatever they want. I don’t care that they came here, but they gotta make it safe.”
The industry argues that it has worked to mitigate problems that those living near gas development operations say they experience. On its website, the Robinson-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, a shale gas industry lobbying organization, details industry efforts “to maintain noise levels at acceptable levels to minimize impacts on the quality of life for nearby residents and workers.”
The web page notes that one natural gas compressor 150 feet away can produce 70 to 90 decibels of noise — a range between a noisy restaurant and a loud shout.
In recent years, Mr. Matijevich, MarkWest officials and Smith Township have exchanged dozens of emails with no resolution and growing frustration.
Mr. Matijevich argues the other two entities aren’t taking into account how noise from 10 hilltop compressors is amplified as it rolls down the creek valley under cloudy skies that seem to contain the noise at ground level. He said he’s asked the company to build a sound barrier at the top of the ravine, but it has declined to do so.
A sampling of the exchanges shows Mr. Matijevich sending a lengthy email on Sept. 18, 2018, to township officials and complaining, “This Three Brothers Compressor Station is vibrating my house. It’s Sunday at 10:15 p.m.”
“I have [had] a headache for the last three days from this station,” he wrote. “I think I need to go the doctor and verify it’s coming from MarkWest’s compressor’s noise. The township can pay the doctor’s bill. All MarkWest has to do is put a sound barrier around it.”
In another email, he noted that the township noise ordinance forbids equipment vibrations extending beyond property lines — that he’d experienced annoying sounds for five days straight.
“I’m sitting in my kitchen and the rumble and vibration is coming through the door,” he wrote on Sept. 25, 2018. “When is something going to be done about this?”
The next day, Stefanie Kunka of MarkWest Energy Partners LP’s law department, provided results of a company noise study that showed it to be in compliance with the township ordinance.
Mr. Matijevich said its noise monitors were positioned in the wrong place to measure the sound waves hitting his house and complained about a low-frequency buzzing noise.
“If it never shuts off, you’ll see how aggravated you get,” he said.
In emails, he also has claimed his civil rights as a homeowner and taxpayer are being violated given low-frequency noise inside his house that’s “almost unbearable.”
A January email questioned how an industrial facility was approved for a site “in the middle of a farm” with no sound level testing before project approval.
“We are trapped in our house, can’t open the windows,” he said. “We feel this is affecting our health with the rumble all the time. Can you help us? Please.”
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578. Twitter: @templetoons. Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983. Twitter: @donhopey.