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.

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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.

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