EPA hearings can be so, like, high school

by Andrea Gelfuso

I recently attended an EPA hearing in Denver. I'm an environmental attorney who left my job to spend a year teaching in Italy, and now that I'm back in the United States, I'm relieved that this country has a rational system of environmental regulation. (Italy has great shoes and amazing cappuccino, but environmental regulation? Fuhgeddaboudit.)

I freely confess that I'm an environmental geek; on vacation in the Caribbean, I even toured a desalinization plant. As a litigator I'm accustomed to lawyerly scoffing and bluster, but I always thought that public hearings were an opportunity to hear the public. So I was surprised to find something a lot different at a recent hearing on Clean Air Act regulations as they apply to the oil and gas industry. It all reminded me of a high school assembly.

At the hearing in Denver, I dressed like a lawyer, sat in the back and listened. The Environmental Protection Agency explained the proposed changes and then asked for comments, with the usual suspects coming forward. Environmentalists asked the EPA to tighten its regulations to protect public health and the environment; industry representatives argued that increased regulation in a brutal economy would cost jobs and eliminate domestic sources of energy. They also presented a study demonstrating the minimal health impacts of oil and gas development.

In the beige room full of grownups, surprises were few until members of the public began to describe how oil and gas development had affected them personally. A woman who lives near oil and gas fields stood up to say her young son had recently developed asthma.

As soon as she mentioned asthma, however, the people around me started to snicker. Eyes rolled, heads lolled. The woman was openly mocked for believing her son's illness was related to oil and gas emissions. She lives in a community heavily affected by drilling, but to the people around me, her assumptions seemed ludicrous.

The woman said she took her child on vacation to Texas to get him away from the fumes; once he was there, she added, his breathing improved. Two professional women in front of me chuckled and agreed that they, too, would feel better after a few days in Texas.

Another woman got up to say she lives 800 feet from two oil and gas wells and an open waste pit. Her well water was tested by the gas operator, who said it was fine. But when a government lab tested the water, it found elevated levels of arsenic and fluoride. The gas company was fined, but the woman was still skeptical about the operator and the safety of her water.

The crowd listened respectfully to anyone who argued that industry and environmentalists could -- and should -- work together, but personal accounts of families getting sick from oil and gas operations were met with disbelief and derisive laughter. The nerdy kids with raw feelings about offspring who couldn't breathe or finding arsenic in their drinking water were jeered by the cool kids, and anyone who mourned the loss of formerly pristine views was, like, so pathetic.

Professionals to my right and left sneered big-time. The mispronunciation of an acronym sent one woman -- an environmental regulator, I later found out -- into titters. But it was more troubling to see people mocked over their personal stories of hardship.

I hadn't signed up to speak, but I had to say something. I said snickering over a mother's fears was inappropriate because of our common humanity and shared interests. I said regulators needed to recognize what seemed like a fundamental disconnect between stakeholders: We may all want clean and affordable energy, but we don't believe each other's stories. We don't trust each other's data, and we define "clean and affordable" in vastly different ways.

Regulators have always had to balance human health and environmental protection with its cost to industry. But now that oil and gas has moved into residential areas, there's a new voice at the microphone -- one that belongs to frightened homeowners. Local residents need verifiable data so that the impacts of energy development aren't inflated by environmentalists' fears or minimized by industry's self-interest.

The mining of natural gas, this so-called "clean" fuel, comes with the emission of volatile organic compounds, open pits of wastewater and hazardous chemicals injected into groundwater. That means we have to consider the costs not just to industry and ratepayers, but also to our neighbors who live near the gas fields.

Some of us are paying the price of our ignorance. And that's nothing to sneer at.

Andrea Gelfuso is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is an adjunct professor who teaches environmental law at the University of Denver.

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