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
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...