A couple hugging on a couch. A long-exposure image of trees and a well pad in the snow. A notebook with sticky notes on it describing health symptoms. A grainy video of emissions at a well pad.

Hollowed out

How Pittsburgh-based EQT’s expansion in West Virginia set four families reeling, while state regulators trusted the company to answer their complaints

EQT expanded its natural gas fracking operations in Knob Fork, a hamlet in West Virginia, in early 2021 — two years ahead of a $5.2 billion acquisition that will deepen the firm’s Appalachian operations.

By August 2021, Knob Fork families were writing to West Virginia environmental regulators. Within months, they were pleading for help as health complaints mounted.

By mid-2022, families were fleeing the hollow, abandoning longtime homes.

By Quinn Glabicki

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

March 4, 2024


June 7, 2022.

Abby Tennant woke in the dead of the night. Sharp pain pierced her chest, and she felt the urge to vomit.

Rtvsrece investigates — Pittsburgh gas giant EQT pledges to tackle climate change and flexes political muscle. Communities in its frack path, though, face stark realities.

She roused her husband, Scott, and their 11-year-old daughter, Piper. She stepped out onto the porch and she could smell it: That familiar burnt chemical scent, like a perm solution in the distance, hanging heavy in the air.

Piper said she could smell it in the living room. Scott, a coal miner and veteran U.S. Marine, said he had a metallic, acid taste in the sides of his mouth.

The family hurried to their Jeep and left Knob Fork, heading west up Mountaineer Highway. Abby’s head and arms ached. As Scott drove, she journaled.

A notebook describes health symptoms and a journey away from home.

“My head is killing me and my muscles, specifically my arms, are killing me. Like the poisons are still going through my system,” Abby wrote.

As the Tennants crested the hill above their home, they passed EQT’s compressor station, one of four the company operated in West Virginia. There, six 1,775-horsepower engines pressurize the fracked gasses piped from nearby wells, including from the Sizemore Pad, a nine-bore well pad at the bottom of the hollow. Hidden behind a bend, four 50,000-gallon open-top tanks hold the briney, toxic liquids left over from shale gas extraction.

Abby wrote that the pain and nausea worsened until they passed the 4-H camp in New Martinsville, more than 20 miles away. From town, Abby called her neighbor Trina Hollabaugh to tell her to leave her house, but she was already at her cabin, miles from home, and she invited the Tennants to join her. They arrived at the cabin at 3:15 a.m. and spent the night.

When Piper woke up, she was short of breath. Bright red rashes stretched across her chest, stomach, back and arms. Abby had the rashes and trouble breathing, too, she wrote. Her muscles twitched. Her hands, lips and eyes burned. The Tennants went home at 2 p.m., exhausted.

Piper, who was often lethargic and had begun sleeping for unusually long periods of time, woke up the next afternoon with her chest hurting and ears ringing. She was dizzy and nauseous. Abby felt the same. Her palms felt “on fire,” she scribbled in her notes. And the “bee stings” were back — sharp phantom pricks that plagued her whenever she was at home.

The Tennants fled their home again the following night when the pain in Piper’s chest worsened, as they did at least 50 times between January and July 2022, as chronicled in Abby’s journals. Those trips were a prelude to the family leaving the home where Scott grew up and he and Abby raised three daughters over 30 years.

“Our home is no longer a home. It is a place of sickness, confusion and sadness,” Abby wrote.

A couple sorts belongings into trash bags while moving from their home. A girl sitting in a chair holding a cat. A girl sitting in a chair holding a cat. Dolls rest in a container outside

Scott and Abby Tennant sorted belongings at the home they’ve since abandoned in Knob Fork in February. “That was our forever home,” Scott said. “I built that driveway with my own hands.” Abby had handpainted the ivy on the walls.

Piper Tennant, 14, took a break from online schoolwork at the house in Paden City where the family relocated. Piper recently switched to online classes while dealing with health issues.

“It wasn’t like this before,” Abby said of Piper. “She was a healthy little girl running around outside, swinging in her swing.”

Piper’s dolls rested outside the house in Paden City in hopes they decontaminate. The Tennants got rid of most soft possessions that may retain chemicals.

Since Pittsburgh-based EQT expanded its presence in Knob Fork, four neighboring families have abandoned homes. Members report respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological symptoms and have documented their observations in repeated complaints to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection [WVDEP] and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].

The tiny village's travails come as EQT is expanding its presence in the Mountain State, following the August acquisition — for $5.2 billion in cash and stock — of the gas producer Tug Hill, dramatically increasing the company's Appalachian footprint. The Tug Hill buy is part of EQT's bid to lead, as the company puts it, "the largest green initiative on the planet."

Support investigative journalism like this. Make a gift to Rtvsrece's nonprofit newsroom today.

Meanwhile, the U.S. EPA is investigating the company’s operations in Knob Fork. A March 2023 EPA inspection found leaks and unexpected hydrocarbon emissions from EQT’s pollution control devices in the hollow.

EQT declined to make CEO Toby Rice available for an interview and did not respond to 27 questions from Rtvsrece about its operations in Knob Fork and West Virginia.

According to WVDEP records, EQT’s emissions contain, among other chemicals, benzene and toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, hexane and formaldehyde — all classified as volatile organic compounds [VOCs]. When inhaled, the chemicals are known to cause dizziness, headaches, tremors, anxiety, confusion, nerve damage, muscle fatigue and — at high levels — death. Some are known to cause cancer.

“Our home is no longer a home. It is a place of sickness, confusion and sadness.”

In total, EQT equipment in and around the hollow is permitted annually to release more than 30 tons of VOCs, nearly 34 tons of nitrous oxide and more than 31 tons of carbon monoxide. Prior to September 2023, the permits allowed significantly lower emissions, but WVDEP approved EQT’s requested increases — based on the company’s own sampling data — despite citizen complaints of odors and ailments consistent with VOC exposure.

Further complicating the conditions, according to experts, is the topography of the hilly hollow and the meteorological patterns of Northern Appalachia, which they said all but assure the emissions are trapped in the valley.

“We're ground zero for all of it,” said Abby, 49.

EQT plans to return in 2025 to frack more wells at the Sizemore Pad, according to WVDEP records.

A portrait of Abby Tennant at home.

For years, Abby Tennant meticulously documented her family’s illnesses and displacement after EQT began to extract gas from the hollow where she lived in Wetzel County, West Virginia.

The first well was drilled in the hollow around 2011, according to the Tennants. The tall flare stacks were visible from their bedroom window, Abby said, and the valley lit up with orange fire at night. “It looked like hell,” she remembered.

The compressor was built at the top of the hill more than a decade ago, according to WVDEP records.

Abby became severely ill in the autumn of 2020; she has a hereditary nerve disorder, but this was different. Her neighbor Dia Kennedy came down with the same aching chest, breathlessness, tingling limbs and more shared symptoms. At first, they thought it was COVID. It was the height of the pandemic, but test after test came back negative.

In November, Abby checked into the emergency room with chest pains. “I absolutely could not breathe,” she said. A CT scan found her lungs hazy and opaque. Dia, 44, checked into the emergency room that December with a shooting pain in her chest.

The next summer, in 2021, EQT returned to frack eight more wells. Abby said the air in the hollow began to turn foul.

A journal covered in sticky notes documents health symptoms and calls to environmental regulators

Abby Tennant’s journal documents June 6, 2022, the Monday before they fled their home in the night, surrounded by folders of records she’s kept since her family’s illnesses began.

That October, the neighboring Tennant, Hollabaugh and Kennedy families had a nutritionist take urine samples. The testing, completed by US BioTek Laboratories, showed that all 12 family members had exposure to at least one of the BTEX chemicals (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene). Testing showed both Scott Tennant and Brooklyn Kennedy, then 11, had levels of benzene exposure 91 times higher than the average American.

All 12 family members’ samples showed evidence of exposure to styrene and phthalates, both commonly used in hydraulic fracturing. All showed exposure to methyl tert-butyl ether, or MTBE, which the American Petroleum Institute noted in 2000 can evaporate from operational liquids.

A man drives an ATV up a hill towards four large wastewater tanks.

Matt Kennedy drives a side-by-side ATV up the hollow toward EQT’s OPRY AST Pad in November 2023. There, four 50,000-gallon, open-top tanks hold wastewater from fracked wells across northern West Virginia.

West Virginia wasn't always the focus of EQT's drilling. That is changing.

In September 2023, EQT’s 42-year-old CEO, Toby Rice, stepped up to a small stage at Grandvue Park, 30 miles north of Knob Fork in Moundsville, West Virginia.

“For those of you that don't know EQT, we are America's largest natural gas producer,” he began.

The town hall presentation was intended for locals — like the Tennants and Kennedys — whose gas rights EQT leased, and followed stops in Pennsylvania’s Washington and Greene counties. The crowd wore a mix of corporate attire, denim and boots. Rice wore a button-down shirt checkered with corporate hues of blue and pink, AllBirds sneakers and an Apple Watch.

The month prior, EQT bought Tug Hill’s regional network of leases, pipelines and compressor stations. With that purchase, Rice said, EQT could extract more than 6.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day — the energy equivalent, he posited, of a million barrels of oil. “It's pretty amazing to think about that much energy being produced by one company,” he said.

EQT maintains most of its core production in Southwestern Pennsylvania, where it operates 1,625 wells. In West Virginia, the company operates 1,002, but with the Tug Hill acquisition, EQT bought access to more than 2,000 untapped locations in the Mountain State. “We have enough inventory to be able to drill and hold that production flat and produce energy reliably for decades,” Rice said.

The corporation’s campaign to expand natural gas production was spelled out in the town hall’s branding: Unleash LNG. In 2023, the United States became the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, spurred by the disruption of European gas supplies after Russia invaded Ukraine. In Moundsville, EQT staffers handed out trucker hats emblazoned with a patch that read “Marcellus Over Moscow.”

Surging gas prices meant EQT leaseholder payments rocketed from $350 million in 2020 to more than $1.8 billion in 2022, Rice said. In 2023, the company reported profits of more than $1.7 billion.

Rice touted EQT’s “electric frac fleets” as a way of reducing the company’s emissions. That method of hydraulic fracturing — the technology employed at the Sizemore pad — uses methane from the well, instead of diesel, to power the equipment on the pad.

With more pipelines to transport EQT’s gas from Appalachia, he said, U.S. LNG could displace coal power in other parts of the world and help to reduce global emissions by substituting a cleaner-burning fossil fuel.

“Because what we're doing here in Appalachia is a case study for how hydrocarbon production can be done responsibly.”

Opposing this claim are 170 scientists who have pushed for the Biden administration to reject LNG expansion while citing grave climate concerns. In January, the administration announced it would pause approvals for all new LNG export terminals, much to the chagrin of Rice, who called the decision “bad policy.”

EQT’s campaign seeks a fourfold expansion of American liquefied natural gas exports abroad, effectively “adding a Saudi Arabia of energy to the world stage,” Rice said in Moundsville.

If he got his way, 70% of that new domestic drilling would occur in the Appalachian Basin, which extends from New York through much of Pennsylvania into western Ohio and almost all of West Virginia.

“Because what we're doing here in Appalachia is a case study for how hydrocarbon production can be done responsibly,” Rice said.

A blurred image of a boy walking up stairs.

Garrett Hollabaugh, 15, takes the stairs toward his bedroom at the family’s house in the hollow. Like many of the family members, Garrett reported brain fog, chest pain, shortness of breath, anxiety and extreme lethargy.

Back in August 2021, a family living near the Sizemore Pad filed the first grievance related to EQT’s increased presence with the WVDEP. Names were redacted from documents released by the department and the family living nearest to the pad did not speak with Rtvsrece.

By winter, the agency was receiving regular complaints.

On Jan. 11, 2022, WVDEP received an anonymous complaint via the federal EPA National Response Center. The caller reported that their air monitor was showing elevated levels of VOCs, and that the chemicals were showing up in the caller’s urine and hair and causing people nearby to become ill.

The department received a separate complaint the next evening.

A screenshot of a complaint filed with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. A screenshot of an email sent to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. A screenshot of an email sent to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

“Myself, and others around me have been deathly sick.”

“Each and every one of us is sick and it did not start until the fracking.”

“This community needs help!.. This is a daily thing. Please, help us!

In internal WVDEP emails that day, staff from the agency’s Office of Oil and Gas noted EQT had been fracking the pad for several weeks and was completing an “electric frac.” There were some trucks and a generator on the pad emitting exhaust fumes, the email noted, but otherwise, the agency believed there was “no mechanism to generate the VOCs the anonymous complainant claims.” (On Jan. 25, an internal WVDEP email noted that the at-home air monitors were capable of “providing a baseline that would allow you to tell if VOC concentrations were up or down.”)

The same evening, the WVDEP received another complaint of odors coming from the well pad and a family’s VOC monitor showing “really high” readings.

On Jan. 21, the neighbor nearest the pad wrote to the WVDEP.

A screenshot of a complaint filed with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. A screenshot of a complaint filed with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. A screenshot of a complaint filed with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. An image of emissions from a well pad.

“I'm not putting my health or my kids' health in jeopardy no more.”

“U can't tell me this is safe for us to be breathing in this. … They are gonna seriously hurt one of us. Would u want to breathe in this amount or one of ur children?”

Matt Kennedy, Dia’s husband, called the agency the next morning to report elevated VOCs on his monitor. An hour later, the Tennants reported a spike on theirs, too.

At 10 a.m., the family nearest the pad also reported a VOC spike and sent WVDEP images of a plume rising from the Sizemore Pad in the winter air.

“I can smell stuff in my home. My whole family has migraines. They do this on the weekends and at nights when they know no one will show up.”

In his report, WVDEP investigator Doug Hammell wrote: “EQT investigated and judged plume was steam. Relayed findings to complainants.”

On Jan. 30, Matt informed the WVDEP that his air monitor had detected a spike at 5 p.m. the day before, which continued throughout the night. “The area smelled like a natural gas leak,” he wrote, “...something needs to be done ASAP!”

On Feb. 1, Abby filed another complaint with the DEP. Her air monitor showed a spike in VOCs, and she was short of breath, nauseous and rash-ridden. The next day, she and Piper left for Abby’s mother’s house in Paden City, where they spent 18 days.

“It’s so wrong that our family has to be split up and living in two places and so far away from each other,” Abby Tennant wrote in February 2022. “We miss each other. Piper misses her dad. We miss home and our pets. What a sacrifice we have had to make just to feel better.”

On Feb. 21, EQT agreed to meet with the three families and members of the WVDEP in the Kennedys’ garage. According to a sign-in sheet, EQT sent five representatives, including Manager of Environment Regina Henry and Production Operations Director Doug Conklin.

During the three-and-a-half-hour meeting, the EQT representatives assured the families that their operations were clean, compliant and safe, according to multiple attendees and a written summary by WVDEP. EQT said they monitored the pad remotely. From operational headquarters in Canonsburg, the company said it could view the temperatures, pressure and water levels, and had an automated gas detection system, Abby recorded in her notes. They looked for leaks using optical gas imaging cameras quarterly and made any necessary repairs. The company said it had installed air monitors at the Sizemore Pad to track VOC and other emissions.

“Interesting they haven’t asked us about being sick,” Abby scribbled in her notes.

The company admitted they had a spill on the pad in January 2022. Internal WVDEP emails explained that a 6-inch rip was discovered in the containment area under the tanks, and that the spilled liquids had been caught in a secondary containment liner under the pad.

The families complained that the WVDEP was “not doing its job,” citing the agency’s lack of air monitoring efforts and hourslong response times to odor complaints. The WVDEP air quality inspector told them the agency makes sure EQT follows its permits. The families requested a separate meeting with WVDEP, which never occurred.

In a statement to Rtvsrece, WVDEP Chief Communications Officer Terry Fletcher wrote that the agency has been “actively engaged in investigating the concerns raised,” and that the agency did not observe any violations at EQT’s facilities. Fletcher wrote that the agency is tasked with ensuring that industry operates in line with environmental law and permits, but that “WVDEP’s jurisdiction does not extend to direct oversight of human health concerns. … We do not have the expertise to assess potential health impacts of exposures, should they occur.”

The WVDEP’s Office of Oil and Gas inspector, Bryan Harris, who attended the meeting, summarized it to colleagues.

A screenshot of an internal WVDEP email summarizing a meeting between EQT and residents of Knob Fork. A screenshot of an internal WVDEP email summarizing a meeting between EQT and residents of Knob Fork. A screenshot of an internal WVDEP email summarizing a meeting between EQT and residents of Knob Fork.

“The smell is making everyone in the community sick. Several have been to a dr who couldn't diagnose the issue.”

“Some folks have been displaced because of oilfield activity.”

“I don't think the community got any satisfaction from today's meeting.”

Abby spent most of that March at her mom’s house in Paden City. She was tired all the time, her mom said later: “Can’t talk, walk. It’s just awful. You can’t do anything to help. … I don’t know what’s in the future for them.”

A woman in a wheelchair is pushed by another woman in a parking lot.

Abby Tennant leaves a pulmonology appointment with her mom at Marietta Memorial Hospital in Marietta, Ohio, in September 2023.

The volatile compounds released into the hollow by EQT and detected in the urine samples of the families are highly reactive organic solvents, explained Michael McCawley, an inhalation toxicologist and associate professor at West Virginia University. In summer 2022, McCawley visited the hollow and met with the families. “It was very quickly irritating to my lungs and left me with a persistent cough for the rest of the day,” he recalled, but air samples he collected a day later “showed nothing at the time.”

The VOCs are “highly inflammatory agents,” said McCawley, who served as an industrial hygienist for 27 years with the CDC’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. When the chemicals benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene enter the body, each insults human cells and causes an inflammatory reaction. The immune system responds, McCawley said, and “that damage just simply multiplies itself.” It taxes the immune system and with prolonged exposure, the damage can lead to chronic disease.

Public health agencies widely recognize the effect of VOCs on the human body, and numerous academic studies have documented the relationship between hazardous air pollutants, fracking and poor health.

“Kick a cell hard enough, long enough, it's going to just fail,” McCawley said. “But in the meantime, it's not going to work the way it’s supposed to work. … It's going to produce symptoms.”

“Your body is an organics factory, essentially. Throw the wrong organics into the pot — something wicked this way comes.”

Coughing, rashes and shortness of breath are acute symptoms expected to result from exposure to the VOCs, McCawley said. The common neurological symptoms reported by the three families in the hollow — involuntary twitching, phantom stings and brain fog — could be expected, too, he said.

“It's a real complex sort of thing,” McCawley said, “which is why it hides so well.” He said some symptoms are difficult to predict and can “fluctuate enormously” between individuals depending on their vulnerability and level of exposure.

Over a long period of time, chronic neurological diseases, such as dementia, could develop. “We know pretty well that plaque formation in the brain is coming from inflammatory reactions,” he said. He added that plaque could affect blood vessels, too, and lead to heart attacks or strokes. Benzene in particular is known to cause leukemia, a form of cancer affecting blood cells.

Styrene and phthalates were found in the urine of all members of the Knob Fork families. They are also highly reactive chemicals that would elicit a similar inflammatory reaction, McCawley said.

“Your body is an organics factory, essentially,” McCawley explained. “Throw the wrong organics into the pot — something wicked this way comes.”

In spring 2022, the Tennants and Kennedys went to the beach at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, hoping to detox.

It didn’t get above 73 degrees. It was cold and windy and the families spent most of their time at the beach house or shopping, but it was a welcome respite from the hollow.

That first day at the sea, Abby’s breathing was still labored but the ringing in her ears had disappeared, she journaled. By the second day, her voice had returned, free from the squeakiness it often developed at home, and she managed to crawl around in the sand, looking for shells. On the third, she said, “we were getting around like we were our old selves again.” In her journal, she celebrated a journey up stairs, although accompanied by tired lungs. “32 steps!” she wrote.

By day four, the twitching had subsided, and the phantom bee stings had vanished. Later in the week, she tried to kayak with Scott on the sound, but had an anxiety attack and resolved to gather shells along the beach. Piper swam in the pool. “Great day,” Abby wrote.

Back in Knob Fork a few days later, Abby’s voice was going in and out and the twitches and phantom bee stings had returned, she wrote. Days later, an EPA investigator visited.

Scott Tennant, 56, moves belongings in the family’s storage unit in Paden City in February. Most of the family’s items were later sold at auction.

The EPA requested technical support from the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry [ATSDR] “to evaluate potential exposures and possible adverse health effects,” according to the agency. In August 2022, ATSDR representatives visited the hollow, but didn’t have “enough” environmental sampling data to investigate. ATSDR said it relies on data from public health entities, in this case the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, but no samples had been collected.

“We’ve been trying to decide for months if we should sell or leave the house,” Abby wrote that May. “A decision will have to be made soon about where to go. We can not stay here and continue to be sick.”

Weeks later, the Tennants were driving through the night to the Hollabaugh’s cabin, and a few months after that, the family decided to leave Knob Fork for good and move into Abby’s mother’s house.

FLIR imaging shows a long, continuous plume of invisible hydrocarbon emissions from the vapor destruction unit at the Sizemore Pad. (Earthworks)

In July 2022, Melissa Ostroff, a certified optical gas imaging thermographer with the national environmental organization Earthworks, visited Knob Fork. She framed EQT’s Sizemore Pad through the lens of a FLIR GF320, a camera specially calibrated to detect invisible hydrocarbons and volatile gasses.

The high-sensitivity grayscale recording revealed a long, continuous plume steadily flowing from the pad’s vapor destruction unit. The emissions weren’t just heat or steam, Ostroff said, because the temperature matched that of the air and the plume was invisible to the human eye. It floated slowly downwind toward the homes of the Tennants, Hollabaughs and Kennedys.

“This is clearly not normal,” Ostroff recalled in a recent interview. Usually, she finds emissions issues at older facilities, arising from maintenance failures. The Sizemore Pad, though, was built in 2021.

Ostroff’s recording and EQT schematics for the Sizemore Pad show that the vapor destruction unit attaches directly to a BTEX tank, which held the VOC byproducts benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. The destruction unit is designed to burn off the pollutants before they can escape into the surrounding atmosphere. But the plume in Ostroff’s recording suggested otherwise. “If we're seeing a lengthy plume, then the combustion is clearly inefficient.

“What we're seeing here are uncombusted VOCs. The BTEX chemicals.”

“It’s good engineering, but it's not so good for health.”

After viewing the recording, McCawley, the WVU inhalant toxicologist, said, “It’s not a good scenario. … That's exactly the kind of thing that you don't want to have happen.

“If you overdo your system, you need an escape valve to reduce the pressure on the system because you don't want to blow pipes out,” he explained. “It’s good engineering, but it's not so good for health.”

Eight months later, EPA investigators aimed a FLIR camera at the BTEX tanks and pollution control equipment, finding hydrocarbon emissions “from multiple points.” EQT pledged to conduct repairs.

Emissions released in the valley would tend to accumulate during the night, said Jose Fuentes, an expert in atmospheric chemistry and a professor at Pennsylvania State University. “If there is a source of a gas, then those gasses will remain highly concentrated near the source during the nighttime,” he explained after viewing the recording.

“And so if you have a house or a neighborhood nearby, they would be impacted by this.”

The night of Oct. 30, 2022, Matt Kennedy used a summa canister supplied by Earthworks to collect an eight-hour sample of the air at the Tennant’s front porch. The results identified a number of VOCs, including BTEX, and showed concentrations of benzene 40% higher than the eight-hour safe exposure limit set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

A screenshot of a complaint to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. A screenshot of a complaint to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. A screenshot of a response to a resident from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

The pattern of neighbor complaints to WVDEP continued into 2023.

“Lights flashing all over the pad. No workers on site, which indicates something … bad odor all night and until this morning. My whole family was up all night coughing and bad headaches.”

A WVDEP report filed for the February 2023 incident concluded: “EQT sent a well tender, no malfunctions found. Called complainant back with findings.”

Around two weeks later, the neighbor nearest the pad reported visible emissions and loud noises from the Sizemore Pad’s storage tanks. Abby called upset that afternoon to report black plumes coming off the well pad.

A WVDEP report for the incident noted that the agency contacted EQT, which had found and repaired a “leaking valve to storage tanks, with audible noise and visible release from tank safety relief valve.” Though visible emissions violate the pad’s permits, documents received by Rtvsrece in a Freedom of Information Act request do not show any enforcement activity by WVDEP.

The next day, on Feb. 22, the nearest neighbor filed another complaint, noting a “horrible smell” that “will take ur breath away and instant headache, having trouble breathing when u go outside.” The neighbor wrote that it was “pointless to call the EQT hotline” because they won’t fix the issue or even call back.

In response, the WVDEP inspector called EQT, which reported all its equipment was operating as permitted and there were no odors nor visible emissions.

The pattern continued into the spring, with Knob Fork residents complaining to the WVDEP, the agency contacting EQT, the company responding that there was nothing wrong, and the agency relaying that message to the residents.

On March 5, the neighbor called again to report an ongoing sulfur odor coming from the well pad. Again, the WVDEP inspector emailed EQT: “Were there any problems/odors at Sizemore yesterday, Sun Mar. 5?”

“No sir, none noted,” the company replied. The WVDEP inspector relayed back to the neighbor: “nothing wrong on Sizemore Sunday per their records.”

A boy and woman sitting on a couch playing an acoustic guitar. A boy and woman sitting on a couch playing an acoustic guitar. A pile of wood in front of a house at dawn. A hunter in an orange vest leaning on a tree in the woods. A hunter in an orange vest leaning on a tree in the woods.

The Hollabaughs left their home in the hollow even before the Tennants did, shortly after the February 2022 meeting with EQT.

The family moved into a small cabin miles away, where the foster brothers Greg and Garrett share an attic room.

Trina, 59, sat in the old house in the hollow in November 2023, resting from packing up belongings. “Feels like someone squeezing your throat the more you sit here,” she said.

“It has destroyed every aspect of our life.”

The next day was the first of deer season: Greg Hollabaugh hunched over a tree in the woods above the cabin, his labored breath illuminated by a headlamp in the early-morning darkness.

“Didn’t used to be like this before they put the wells in,” he said. He used to go all the way to the top of the mountain. “Last year, I couldn’t make it up.”

Greg paused to pick a route up the steep hillside layered in fallen leaves. “It depends on how I’m breathing,” he said, and started up.

Thirty more feet and the 38-year-old stopped again, hunched and sucking for air.

A month earlier, the families met with an attorney from the Wheeling branch of Bordas and Bordas. They hadn't wanted to sue. “Money is not our top priority,” Abby told the lawyer. She said she was never going to move back to the hollow or reclaim the family home.

“You can’t sell your home, you can’t live in your home. So what do you do?” Abby said in October.

If they could secure some sort of medical monitoring, that would be a win.

He was at least the fourth lawyer not to take their case.

A woman parks a jeep at home with a man in the passenger seat.

Abby Tennant arrives at her home in the hollow on Oct. 18, 2023, with an attorney, who visited the hollow and considered taking on the displaced families as a client. Abby stayed in the car.

Another lawyer who considered their case, John Skaggs, told the families his firm would not pursue it. Not only does a recent state Supreme Court decision give mineral owners more leeway on causing “nuisance problems,” but it’s also difficult to prove the connection between pollution and illness, Skaggs wrote. “In our view,” he wrote, “the expense and complication associated with pursuing these claims outweighs any benefit that might be obtained.”

Last month, the Tennants auctioned off their remaining belongings at their home in the hollow and agreed to sell their property to Scott’s brother who lives nearby, who sought use of the land.

A man sitting in the driver's seat of an ATV. A man sitting in the driver's seat of an ATV. A girl and a woman sit on a couch in a living room. A girl wears an angel costume in a wooden house. A woman wearing a face mask in a cabin.

Matt Kennedy, 42, peered out from his side-by-side ATV at the top of his property in November, overlooking EQT’s compressor station and frac water storage tanks. “I’ve lived here all 42 years,” he said.

Matt’s wife, Dia, and daughter, Brooklyn, hadn’t returned to the home for two years. “They were just zombies out there,” Matt said of his family’s illness at home. “It breaks my heart.”

Dia Kennedy sat with her daughter Jozlyn, 11, at the house in New Martinsville, where the family relocated.

In February, Jozlyn Kennedy, 11, donned an angel costume at the family’s abandoned log home while packing her belongings to bring to the house in New Martinsville where the family relocated. “I felt like a ghost,” she remembered of her time living there.

Dia Kennedy stood in her home in the hollow for the first time since May 2022. Her hands burned and her head ached, she said. She crouched in the closet and cried as she packed her daughter’s clothes.

This past November, Matt Kennedy stood in the log home that he and Dia built in the hollow, on their 87 acres, in 2008. The walls were Alaskan yellow cedar and the beams made of hemlock. It was their dream home, tucked back from the Mountaineer Highway overlooking a pond stocked with koi fish and flanked with a hutch for the ducks that his oldest daughter, Brooklyn, used to care for. “You don’t walk away from it for no reason," he said.

The upstairs bedrooms are trimmed with oak harvested from trees on the property. Belongings remain strewn about Brooklyn’s room. “She grabbed what she wanted and just left and has never come back,” Matt remembered. That was two years ago, when the family decided to abandon the log home and move to New Martinsville.

Matt hasn’t swept or dusted in case a lawyer might one day want to test the home for contamination.

That evening, he drove his side-by-side ATV through the hollow, pausing along the dirt road where only the low drone of the pad could be heard. He pointed along the creek bed, where EQT had placed air monitors.

Matt's urine test showed benzene levels 82% higher than the average American. “I've never smoked a cigarette in my life or anything,” he said. “Where's that come from?”

His health concerns weren't as severe as those of Dia and Abby or his girls, who stayed home more when they lived in Knob Fork. “Brain fog every now and then, my words get mixed up,” he said. He had the chest pains and the headaches, too.

He parked the four-wheeler in the tall grass at the top of the hill.

“We're out in the middle of nowhere!”

When he cut the engine, all that could be heard was the sound of the grass rustling in the breeze and the compressor station's vacuum-like hum.

EQT owned the mineral rights beneath his land, allowing the company to suck up the gas below, for a price. Without the money from that lease, he said, the family would never have been able to afford the house in New Martinsville. The irony didn’t escape him.

“The same devil that ran me out of this place bought that place.”

Photographs by Quinn Glabicki.

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at Rtvsrece and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at quinn@rtvsrece.com and on Instagram @quinnglabicki.

Delaney Rauscher Adams contributed.

This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.

Design and web development by Natasha Vicens.