ALLEGANY — A general concern voiced by residents of the West Branch and Four Mile roads in Allegany that were rocked by a house explosion last week was how can officials ensure that it won’t happen again.
A number of residents and officials were present at Tuesday’s Allegany Town Board meeting to voice concerns related to the explosion of Ron and Betty Jo Volz’s home at 3699 West Branch Road at approximately 9:40 a.m. Nov. 18. Several residents at the meeting expressed beliefs that the explosion could be directly linked to the drilling of oil wells by Dimes Energy that has been ongoing in that area since last spring. The company had stated that as many as 400 oil wells will be drilled throughout the community and nearby areas of Nichols Run and Chipmonk Road within the upcoming years.
Lead investigators with the Cattaraugus County Fire Investigation Team have not yet released an official cause of the explosion, and have only stated it was accidental in nature. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officials at the meeting said the investigation is ongoing, therefore they can’t say if there is a direct link or not to the drilling.
Ron Volz, who was at the meeting, was first to address the town board who placed the issue on the agenda, but noted the discussion was not deemed a public hearing or special meeting. Representatives from several local agencies were on-hand to answer some of the residents’ questions.
During his comments, Volz said he wasn’t at the meeting to “point fingers” at anyone in regards to what caused the explosion that leveled his home. Volz, his wife and son had left the home prior to the explosion, and the family dog that was in the home survived.
“My main concern right now is to make sure everybody is safe” in the area, Volz said. “Because my house, during the explosion, went up 10 feet in the air.”
Volz said he also has heard from neighbors that water piped into their homes is now discolored, milky in appearance or even black at times.
“Please there has got to be a town meeting, a big one where everybody can get together,” he pleaded. “There’s got to be answers on what they can do to protect themselves … a life is valuable.”
Volz claimed that only minutes before the explosion, the oil company had fracked one of the wells in the area. Fracking is the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks or boreholes to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas. Officials at the meeting noted fracking done in the area is not a high-volume process and uses soap in the water for the process as opposed to chemicals.
Gail Hammond, a nearby neighbor of the Volz family, said she had mailed a letter to the town board the day before the explosion with concerns that the drilling process was causing disruption of the roads and area. Hammond said she tries to keep up with area news, “but never had any inkling (the drilling) was coming across the hills like it has.” She noted an access road that borders her property has constant traffic with log trucks, drilling equipment and other vehicles which consistently leave mud and other debris on West Branch Road and create a noisy environment. Hammond said she was sitting in her living room the morning of Nov. 18 when the explosion of the Volz home occurred. At first she thought it had been the explosion of a tanker truck that had driven past her home almost at the same time, but soon saw it was the Volz house. It was mentioned in the meeting that the driver of the tanker truck experienced some hearing loss following the explosion.
“My whole living room moved, and it was incredible, it was unbelievable,” Hammond said of the explosion impact on her home. “I can’t imagine more of this … and one of the big things is property values.
“I can’t tell you cause and effect, but it seems to me too coincidental,” she said in referring to the drilling process and explosion. “I’m hoping we get some help and attention up there.”
Another resident of the valley, Judy Capozzi, expressed similar concerns.
“Tonite we’re here for everyone,” Capozzi said. “We need to feel safe and we need to know our water supplies are safe … It’s changed our lifestyle, our valley was beautiful and you’ve taken something away from us.”
Another resident at the meeting spoke of how her car is never clean from driving on the muddy roads in the valley, and how the roads now seem unsafe for traffic that includes school buses.
When a resident asked if an environmental impact study had been done prior to the onset of the drilling, Town Supervisor Kathy Martin said permitting had been issued by the DEC.
Adam Schultz, DEC spokesperson, said the agency conducted a “generic environmental impact study” prior to issuing the permit for all oil and gas development in that area.
“For each individual permit application they did an environmental assessment, so it was a less complicated form,” Schultz added, noting the permits can be viewed at the local DEC office in Allegany. He said public hearings were not required for the project, and therefore were not held. In addition, Schultz said 150 permits for a total of 192 wells had been issued for the Four Mile Road and West Branch Road areas. Schultz said the DEC inspects the oil wells daily.
When asked if the DEC inspected a large oil spill in the Boulder Ridge Road area, which runs to the West Branch Creek, Schultz said it had been inspected and occurred from a broken line.
Eric Wohlers of the Cattaraugus County Health Department said the department has hand-outs available regarding drinking water concerns and gas hazards in the home. He said residents should contact the Allegany Fire Department if unusual gas smells are detected in their homes. In addition, Wohlers said there are combination monitors available on the market for under $100 to detect the presence of carbon monoxide, methane and propane in a house. At the end of the meeting, Wohlers offered to check five households in the community with detectors provided by the Health Department.
Matt LeBlanc, who oversees production for Dimes, was at the meeting and said the company is doing what it can to keep the affected roads cleared of mud and dirt and will acquire better road cleaners. While he didn’t say when the upgraded road cleaners, or sweepers, would be available, the company hopes to have them available in the future. LeBlanc also told the residents that the production work, which should only take place between 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., likely won’t be completed in their area for another year. He said the company is also installing quieter generators in areas near residences.