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Mysterious gas leak threatens Ponca City family

Methane gas issues from the ground at Sherry Walls' home in Ponca City. (KOKH)

An explosive gas surrounds an Oklahoma home and no one can figure out where it came from or how to stop it. In the meantime, thousands of dollars in state resources were spent over the past five years only to find there is no answer which is leaving a family living in fear.

“I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place right now,” said Sherry Walls who lives with her children in the home in Ponca City.

The issue is methane gas. It is surrounding the house and is coming out of the ground. The presence of the gas was first noticed by a utility inspection. The gas company replaced the meter and the line leading to the house, but the gas remained. Eventually the gas company pulled service from the house because it was not safe. The Walls paid to transfer everything in the home to electric, but that still did not solve the problem.

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission is now handling the case. The OCC has jurisdiction because it is responsible for abandoned oil and gas wells and pipelines throughout Oklahoma. In most cases, an abandoned site can be located and removed or capped to stop gas leaks.

That was not the case at the Wall home.

Each time something was discovered, the Walls thought their problems were over. Each time an old pipe is plugged or a ventilation system installed, the gas finds a way back to the surface.

Inspectors have even drilled holes in the street and found gas in those holes. The Wall’s driveway has been dug up and replaced multiple times.

“The last time,” Sherry recalled, “Before they put in the cement and the new ventilation they brought in gravel, but it gets contaminated within 24-48 hours.”

Sherry's husband Chris spent years trying to find the source of the leak and managed the family through it all. They went through a bankruptcy that came as they had to pay rent and a mortgage during their forced evacuation because of the leak. The fight to save his home while coping with the ever present noxious gas proved to be too much for Chris. He took his own life earlier this year.

“If I can't do anything else, I was obviously left here for a purpose and I am going to finish what my husband started,” Sherry said, “We deserve our home.”

The OCC installed ventilation around the house, when that failed to work the state provided a $30,000 ventilation system that sits on the roof. Sherry says the new system has caused more problems than it has solved.

“My neighbor said while I ran it for two weeks she began having a lot more headaches.”

The OCC has not given up, and continues to test and inspect the house hoping to find the answer. Right now there is not a chance for explosion, but that is always a possibility depending on the gas readings.

Sherry has a gas detector inside her home, but while the gas is in the yard and below the house it has not shown up in tests of the air inside the house.

As a further precaution, she bought two parakeets as pets. They also serve as the modern equivalent of the canary in a coal mine.

“My husband always said it was like being poisoned a little bit at a time.”

Recently national environmental groups have joined Sherry in trying to find a solution and asking the questions that haven't been answered in the last half a decade.

“It scares me. It scares me with my family.”

There's a chance the house was built on top of an abandoned oil or gas well. These types of sites are located all over Oklahoma, but so far there has been no solid evidence of an old well site. Sherry says her husband once found a depression beneath the home, but did not find any material that would be associated with an old well. Because it is under the house, it is not possible to drill or excavate to determine if there ever was a well.

Another concern is that the house could have been built on top of a natural gas field, one that could have been abandoned decades ago when it failed to produce enough gas to be profitable. If that is the case, it could be a natural phenomenon.

Either way the corporation commission says they are continuing to monitor the gas readings, and hoping someday to solve the problem once and for all.

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