Does natural gas drilling make people sick?


By David Frey, 3-08-2011

Residents of Battlement Mesa, a sprawling housing development in western Colorado, are used to seeing the golf course from their windows, not gas rigs. But when an energy company announced plans to start drilling inside the subdivision, residents became concerned not just about the noise and the traffic, but the health effects of air and water pollution.

“I can understand gas drilling,” says Bob Arrington, a retired engineer and former bed-and-breakfast owner who bought a home in Battlement Mesa three years ago, when gas drilling amid the residential development was the farthest thing from his mind. “But when they go into urban areas, I think they have a much higher obligation to mitigate and protect the health of people than when they’re operating out in the boondocks.”

He and other neighbors asked Garfield County to fund a heath impact assessment to see if any health harms might come from the drilling operations. They received a blunt answer. Researchers found air emissions from natural gas operations will probably make some residents sick.

“The key findings of our study are that health of the Battlement Mesa residents will most likely be affected by chemical exposures, accidents or emergencies resulting from industry operations and stress-related community changes,” researchers concluded.

Industry representatives have long downplayed the health risks of emissions from natural gas operations, but this assessment, performed by the Colorado School of Public Health, insisted that drilling operations have already harmed the air in Garfield County, and that new operations in a dense subdivision could bring more impacts.

Without proper pollution prevention measures, researchers found, air pollution will likely “be high enough to cause short-term and long-term disease, especially for residents living near wells. Health effects may include respiratory disease, neurological problems, birth defects and cancer.”

Many residents are hoping Garfield County will take action to address their concerns about health impacts. Typically, county officials have limited say over drilling operations, but the Battlement Mesa plan isn’t typical. Not only would it bring gas wells into a residential subdivision, including one well close to the golf green’s sixth hole. The contract that created Battlement Mesa gives the county authority over any land use changes there, including natural gas development. The energy company, Antero Resources, of Denver, must submit a land use plan for its operations, apparently giving the county unusual say in its plans.

John Martin, the chairman of the county commissioners, said that may not give them a sway over questions of health impacts, though.

“The land use issue is dealing with the impacts of foreign dust, traffic noise and what have you,” said Martin, a Republican. If the operations meet state and federal environmental requirements, he said, “what authority do we have?”

The assessment, however, encourages the county to seek measures “above and beyond” state and federal requirements. That could include requiring flow-back technology that would eliminate emissions and disclosing all chemicals used on site.

Neighbors have already complained about emissions causing nosebleeds and flu-like symptoms from nearby Antero gas wells. State regulators issued Antero a notice of alleged violation for a July 2010 incident that resulted in unusually high levels of toxins. When the wells come within the subdivision, residents fear the impacts will be worse and affect more people.

“The data’s actually there,” Arrington said. “It will lead to health effects [due to] the involvement of chemicals that are used and the amount of air pollution and release that goes on.”

Like many of his neighbors, Arrington bought into Battlement Mesa seeking a retirement home in the warm weather of western Colorado’s high desert. The development was originally built by Exxon to house workers for its oil shale operations, but after the oil shale industry collapsed in 1982, Battlement Mesa found new life as a retirement community. Exxon held on to its mineral rights for the gas deposits underneath, though, and Antero leased those rights.

In 2009, the company announced plans to drill 200 wells on nine pads in the development. It has pledged to stay off some of the mesas where wells would be most visible. And it has worked out a plan to hide well pads by sinking them and surrounding them with berms covered with trees and shrubs. Still, one pad would be just 100 feet from the sixth hole of the public golf course. That well would be about 1,000 feet from his home, Arrington said.

These are issues Arrington said he never expected when he bought the house. The issue of mineral rights came up at the closing, he said, but the real estate agents told him “they’ll never drill in Battlement.”

“We found out down the line there were drilling plans from the get-go,” he said.

Arrington said he’s no anti-drilling activist, but he became involved when he joined the homeowners’ association, the closest thing this unincorporated development has to a city council, and found it was doing nothing about the prospect of drilling. He joined the group Battlement Concerned Citizens to try to be a liaison between the two groups.

The health impact assessment is the first in the nation to consider the impacts of oil and gas development in a residential area, said Jim Rada, Garfield County’s environmental health manager.

“We recognize that this type of development project will likely have more health impacts on the community, but the important point is that these impacts could be avoided using some or all of the recommendations,” he said.

The biggest concern is air pollutants, researchers found. Over the past 10 years, Garfield County became so heavily drilled that critics nicknamed it “Gasfield County.” Several residents have complained about a range of symptoms they blame on gas drilling in the area.

Monitoring stations have found volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides – components that lead to ozone – at unusually high, and sometimes dangerously high, levels. Overall ozone levels in the rural county have been on the rise since monitoring began in 2005. In 2009, Garfield County ranked fifth out of 64 Colorado counties for its VOCs and nitrogen oxides. Two years earlier, the energy industry was the highest contributor of compounds like benzene, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

The greatest concentration of contaminants would likely come in the first five years, during development, the assessment found, but it said “air quality degradation may last for the duration of Antero’s 30-year project.”

The report found property values will also likely decline.

Alvyn Schopp, Antero’s vice president of accounting and administration, said the company planned to submit written comments to the county within 30 to 45 days and would not comment publicly in the meantime. Company officials criticized an earlier draft of the assessment, saying it failed to take into account pollution control measures they planned to implement.

Last year, over half of the company’s reserves were in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin. Antero also has operations in the Marcellus Shale play in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and the Woodford Shale and Fayetteville Shale plays in Oklahoma. Last month it announced a $519 million budget for 2011 operations.

Watch an audio slideshow about Battlement Mesa, and read HCN's previous coverage of the health study.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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