Residents seek answers at emergency town hall meeting

Environmental consultant, oil company officials talk about oil drilling

By: Robert Guttersohn | Shelby - Utica News | Published August 22, 2014

 Hundreds of residents fill a banquet room at the Palazzo Grande in Shelby Township for an emergency town hall meeting Aug. 20 regarding the oil drilling operation at 25 Mile and Dequindre roads.

Hundreds of residents fill a banquet room at the Palazzo Grande in Shelby Township for an emergency town hall meeting Aug. 20 regarding the oil drilling operation at 25 Mile and Dequindre roads.

Photo by Patricia O'Blenes

On Aug. 20, residents came out in force to pack a banquet room at the Palazzo Grande in Shelby Township for a four-hour emergency town hall meeting about the oil and gas operation at 25 Mile and Dequindre roads.

Township Attorney Rob Huth moderated the forum, allowing environmental consultant Christopher Grobbel, of Grobbel Environmental and Planning Associates, and West Bay Exploration Co. officials, both of Traverse City, to make presentations and then answer questions.

Grobbel, who was hired by the township and has been an environmental professional for nearly 30 years, said he is very critical of the oil and gas industry and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s handling of it.

He recommended that residents organize, foster close relations with township officials and reach out to other Michigan communities dealing with the same thing.

“It’s not the industry’s water. It’s not their air. It’s ours. We own it through the public trust doctrine,” Grobbel said.

He said that, despite Michigan having a long history in oil and gas exploration with about 56,000 wells drilled in the state historically, no one has all the answers.

“This kind of industry coming out of state forests and into our neighborhoods, coming closer to residential land use around Lower Michigan, is certainly a source of concern,” he said. “Most of my career has been spent cleaning up petroleum in places where humans made errors.”

Common problems, he said, included leaving valves open, backing into pipes, running over components, failing to close valves and failed valves.

He said that, in southeast Michigan, five spills had been reported, but in the Lansing district, West Bay owns 10 — or a third — of wells with spills in those communities.

As for the health risks, he said studies are highly controversial, but that the soot and particulate matter from many diesel trucks in a small area can lead to breathing difficulty, headaches and eye and mucus membrane irritation.

“This is something that hasn’t been well-studied but is beginning to be,” Grobbel said. “It is also showing an increased risk of cancers.”

He said local municipalities have some control over regulating truck traffic and noise and light pollution in their ordinances.

West Bay Vice President Patrick Gibson said West Bay was a small, family-owned oil and gas exploration company that was established in 1981 and has been in the tri-county area since 1987. He added that West Bay would engage in conventional drilling techniques at 25 Mile and Dequindre roads and promised there would be no hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as “fracking” — at the site.

“Being that close to residences is something West Bay has specialized at over the last 30 years in communities outside of Shelby, like Sterling Heights, Novi and Livonia, to name a few,” Gibson said.

He said West Bay and the DEQ are both cognizant of the impact that drilling for oil has on the environment, and they take rigorous precautions to protect sites from contamination.

At the time of the meeting, he said it would still take weeks for West Bay to determine if there was oil at the well site. He said crews drilled the reservoir, set the last piece of casing in the well and removed the large derrick used to drill the well.

“I would like to thank any of you within the immediate area of the well for the last 20 days,” he said. “It’s a pretty intense construction activity that occurred in your area.”

Gibson said a smaller, truck-mounted completion rig took the derrick’s place on Aug. 18 and crews would use it to test for oil only during daylight hours. If no oil was found, he said West Bay would cap the well, restore the location and leave.

“If productive, we’ll temporarily tap the well, remove the rig and start working on infrastructure to take the product to an industrial or commercial location where we can separate the oil and gas,” he said.

Despite rumors circulating about a production facility at 26 Mile and Mound roads, Gibson said West Bay has not made a decision about the location yet. One of the company’s leases is with the landowner at that location, he said.

Crews would then construct a wellhead about 12-15 feet tall and a garden shed containing a large reel to cut the paraffin wax often associated with oil production approximately once a day, Gibson said. At that point, he said, a truck would come to check the well once in the morning and once at night.

“We’ll restore the landscaping around the site to match the landscaping of the subdivision,” Gibson said. “Everything West Bay has done to this point follows the law exactly and follows the permitting process exactly. We submitted everything to the state and township that needed to be submitted and received approvals from the DEQ.”