PRESTONSBURG — Vendors at a local flea market claim they fell ill last week, when workers installing a new gas line nearby vented the old line on the hillside above them.
Frank Slone, of Martin, was asleep in a camper outside his monument and produce store at Abbott Creek Community Market, shortly before 7 a.m. last Wednesday, when he was awakened by the sound of his gas detectors going off. He said he struggled to his feet and out the camper door, overcome by the effects of the gas that had collected inside.
“I was blowed out of my mind,” Slone said. “I didn’t even know what planet I was on.”
Outside, he quickly discovered the source of the gas: An 8-inch gas line was being emptied roughly 50 feet away from his open window.
Slone said he continued feeling worse throughout the day, eventually being overcome by headaches, nausea and diarrhea. That evening, he finally decided to go to the emergency room at St. Joseph Hospital, in Martin.
He would not leave the hospital for four days.
While none of the other vendors at the market were hospitalized, many who spoke to The Floyd County Times said they also felt ill effects from the gas. Many complained of headaches, nausea and diarrhea, and one woman said she made the decision to double up on her blood pressure medicine for a week after the incident.
Mike Fairchild, who supervises the market and lives in a mobile home on the premises, said he first became aware of the gas release when he heard it.
“It would deafen you,” Fairchild said. “It went on for an hour-and-a-half, it seemed like.”
Vendor Jimmy Mayhan agreed, saying the release “sounded like an airplane.”
EQT, which owns the gas line, denied Wednesday that anything improper occurred with the release.
“Safety is priority number one for EQT and as part of our standard safety practices, EQT personnel who were on site at the time of the blowdown on Oct. 2 were wearing personal gas monitoring devices, which measure levels of gas and percent of oxygen in the air,” the company said in a prepared statement when contacted by The Times for comment. “None of the monitoring devices picked up any presence of gas and all oxygen levels were reported as normal. EQT always monitors blowdowns very closely to protect nearby residents.”
But Fairchild, who said he once worked for a gas company, said the problem was not with the release, but with the timing. By choosing to release the gas early on a foggy morning, the gas could not escape to the upper atmosphere, he said.
“What it was, that morning it was real foggy, and that fog wouldn’t let the gas out of here,” Fairchild said. “It just held it down in the valley.”
Buddy Gambill, a vendor from Paintsville, said he does not know why the EQT didn’t warn nearby residents or market vendors that they were planning to release the gas that morning.
“Nobody said a word,” Gambill said. “You’d think one of the bosses would come over and say, ‘We’re getting ready to let gas out. You might want to me careful. If you’ve got any breathing problems, you might want to take precautions.’”
Gambill said he, too, was nearly overcome by the fumes.
“I got real sick that afternoon,” Gambill said. “I got down in the gravel and leaned against the truck for a good long while.”
Inspectors from the state Department for Environmental Inspection were at the flea market this week, interviewing Slone and others who complained of the gas. However, when asked, they said they were prohibited from commenting to the media.
Fairchild said this is not the first incident to arise from the gas line construction. About a month ago, he said, during a period of heavy rain, he was awakened by the fire department late one night and told he either had to evacuate or go to jail. The hillside behind his house had slipped, leaving the old gas line exposed.
On Wednesday, he pointed to the hillside where the gas line remains exposed today.
“The gas company has walked all over us, is what they’ve done,” Fairchild said. “I had to move my daughter out of here.”
Fairchild says he feels like he is living on a “time bomb.”
Gambill said beyond the gas release and the lack of warning, he is puzzled why EQT has not shown any concern for those affected.
“There was no medical people come down here,” Gambill said. “Nobody’s come down here.”
Slone said he is simply thankful that he has the gas detectors installed in his camper. Otherwise, he said he probably would not still be alive, either from asphyxiating on the gas or killed in an explosion, he had lit his usual morning cigarette.
“Those detectors saved my life,” Slone said. “If it weren’t for them, I have an 11-year-old child who wouldn’t have a father.”