Gas industry secrets and a nurse's story

 

This July, an emergency room nurse named Cathy Behr wanted to tell Colorado's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission the story of how she nearly died after being exposed to a mystery chemical from a gas-patch accident.

Regulators said she wasn't scheduled to testify and they didn't want to hear it. But anyone concerned about natural gas development should listen.

Behr, who works in southern Colorado, at Durango's Mercy Regional Medical Center, fell ill last April after being exposed for 10 minutes to a gas-field worker who had come into the ER, his clothes damp and reeking. He'd come into contact with one of the "secret formulas" drillers use to hydraulically fracture oil- and gas-bearing formations.

Within minutes of inhaling the nauseating fumes coming off the worker, Behr lost her sense of smell. (She later told her story to the Durango Herald, a daily paper that has done excellent reporting on the incident: durangoherald.com.) The ER was locked down and the room ventilated by firefighters. But when Behr went home after her 12-hour shift, she still couldn't smell anything. Then the headache she'd developed got worse. A week later, her liver, heart and lungs began to shut down. She spent 30 hours in intensive care.

Although the company that makes the frac'ing fluid provided Behr's doctors with what it calls "'Material Data Safety Sheets"' at the time of the incident, it refused to provide more specific information to the hospital once she fell ill, according to the Herald. Her intensive-care doctor had to guess what to do as he tried to keep her alive.

Among a suite of long-overdue reforms, the state's oil and gas commission is now considering rules that would require the oil and gas industry to tell the public what's in the toxic brew it uses for so-called frac'ing operations. Compounds commonly injected into the ground include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and a fracing formula called hydrocarbon methanol phosphate ester, which Behr's doctor suspects is what poisoned her.

Small quantities of these chemicals have the potential to contaminate entire aquifers. Drillers can pump upward of 100,000 gallons of this frac juice -- per well -- into the ground.

These chemicals were exempted from the federal Safe Water Drinking Act as part of the 2005 energy bill, despite their toxicity and potential for release into groundwater. Thanks to intense lobbying from the oil and gas lobby, companies aren't required to tell anyone what they inject, in what concentrations, or how much of it they pump into the ground.

Halliburton has said that having to identify its frac'ing ingredients would mean giving away trade secrets, much like requiring Coca-Cola to reveal its secret for Coke. Here's a thought: Coke does tell consumers what's in every can of its soft drinks, even if it doesn't reveal the exact recipe. And last time I checked, spilling some on your lap won't bring on heart, liver and respiratory failure.

It would be bad enough if Behr's story were the only one. It's not.

Earlier this year, an outfitter who drank from a contaminated spring behind his cabin near the drilling-besieged Roan Plateau fell ill and needed medical help. His diagnosis: benzene exposure.

The oil and gas commission did get to hear about that incident. When asked about the effects of ingesting benzene, however, a toxicologist for the industry group, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, told commissioners that some level of "'acute health effect,"' as long as it was reversible, would be acceptable.  According to a draft transcript of the hearing, the expert said unless it causes cancer, benzene could be considered simply a nuisance, like dust from construction.

"'It may make me cough every once in a while, and two days later I'm better,"' he said. "'Is that a significant health effect or is that a nuisance effect?"'

The commission's staff has proposed a new rule that would require companies to tell the state what chemicals it injects into the ground to drill a well. La Plata County, where Cathy Behr got sick, supports that change and wants stronger protections for gas field workers as well. County Commissioner Wally White also worries about the future: "In 10, 15, 20 years, will we have a Love Canal Here... will these environmental things come back to bite us? Nobody knows."

Meanwhile, Behr has mostly recovered, though she has trouble breathing at high altitude. The fate of the worker doused with the frac'ing product -- later revealed to be something called "ZetaFlow" --  was only recently revealed. His name is Clinton Marshall, and he says he suffered no ill effects from the frac'ing spill and wanted the Durango Herald to hear his side of the story. Marshall also said that though his employer fired him after the accident, he has a new job with the gas industry in Farmington, N.M.

Eric Frankowski is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). A former reporter for the Longmont Times-Call, he is now a media consultant in Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: