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Know the West

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.