Health studies gas up

Colorado launches one of the nation's first health assessments of gas-drilling impacts

  • A proposed drilling site sits between a housing subdivision and the Battlement Mesa Golf Course.

    William Woody
  • Members of the Battlement Concerned Citizens from left, Dave Devanney, Betsy Leonard, Ron Galterio, Paul Light and Bob Arrington, stand near the proposed site.

    William Woody
 

Driving through Battlement Mesa, a community of 5,000 perched on a bluff in western Colorado, Cheri Brandon thought she saw something she'd feared. A bulldozer was clearing dirt near the new middle school in the heart of Brandon's quiet subdivision, right where, according to a grainy photocopied map, Denver-based Antero Resources plans to drill for natural gas. She pulled over.

From the back seat, Mary Ellen Denomy peered out the window.

"They're digging a pad without a special permit," Brandon said.

"They're excavating a pad without any permit!" Denomy said.

A quick phone call, however, established that this bulldozer was not, in fact, Antero's. The middle school was just removing dirt from a recent excavation.

"OK, no panic there," said Denomy.

"No panic there!" Brandon laughed and exhaled. Then the pair continued down the road to the spot where a drill rig will, someday soon, sprout just off the sixth green of the golf course.

If some folks here are a little on edge, it's not hard to understand why. This is Garfield County, in the heart of the Piceance Basin, where residents live atop at least 21 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Drilling has a long history here, and so do people's worries: In 2008, outfitter Ned Prather drank a glass of water from his tap and ended up in the hospital, poisoned by chemicals that had seeped into his spring. Eighteen gas wells surrounded his property. A 2007 county study found at least five drinking water wells contaminated with methane. In 2004, West Divide Creek was so contaminated by methane and benzene that neighbors could light it on fire. Locals blame hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process in which drillers shoot over a million gallons of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals into a well to crack the rock formation and release the gas inside.

Please wait while the player loads. Note: you must have Javascript enabled and the Adobe Flash Player installed.

 

Stories like these bubble up across the West's gas patches. And yet, after decades of drilling, public health officials and activists agree that no one knows with any certainty how natural gas production affects the health of people who live near it -- and whether such reports are the leading edge of a health crisis, as activists worry, or isolated accidents, as industry contends. That's because there have been no comprehensive studies of human health impacts.

That may be about to change. Brandon and Denomy belong to the Battlement Concerned Citizens, a small but vocal coalition of retirees, who have pushed Garfield County to fund a health assessment before approving Antero's drilling proposal. It will be one of the first times that regulators will be asked to consider a detailed health assessment when permitting gas drilling. (The only other formal health assessment of an oil and gas project in the U.S. was in Alaska, in 2007.) And it comes at a time when communities -- and policy-makers -- from Wyoming to New York are taking a growing interest in the health impacts of natural gas production.

Battlement Mesa does not look like a good place to drill for natural gas. Its sweeping views -- and top-notch golf course -- have long drawn retirees to its quiet cul-de-sacs. But among the comfortable houses and schools sit 14 sites pre-approved for natural gas well-pads. The sites are a remnant of the community's genesis as a company town, built to house workers for Exxon's ill-fated Colony oil shale project in the early 1980s. Mapped out before most of the houses were built, the sites have sat dormant, unknown to most residents, for over two decades. Dormant, that is, until last summer, when Antero Resources announced plans to drill some 200 wells from 10 of those sites, some only 500 feet from homes.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRANT WRITER (PART-TIME, FREELANCE CONTRACT)
    High Country News seeks an energetic, eloquent and highly organized grant writer to support a growing foundations program. This position works closely with our Executive...
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...