Study: Fracking health impacts underestimated

Garfield County assessment examined for local application

A large-scale study done in Garfield County investigating the potential health and environmental impacts of a proposed fracking facility near a residential development is raising eyebrows around Colorado.

Some regional environment and conservation advocates say the Health Impacts Assessment study conducted by the University of Colorado School of Public Health may hold answers to questions La Plata County residents have been facing for decades.

“Any study that’s this comprehensive is extremely informational for policymakers and citizens,” said Mike Meschke, environmental health director for the San Juan Basin Health Department. “It gives us a good example of the kinds of things we should be reviewing, what we should be sensitive to and what our discourse should revolve around.”

The study was designed to help address possible health impacts of an impending Antero Resources proposal that would put 200 wells within 500 feet of Battlement Mesa. Among its many findings, the draft report indicates that residents who live within a half mile of a well pad are more likely to experience health effects than residents farther away, with air-pollution impacts being an important concern. The researchers recommended 78 possible actions to reduce the identified impacts.

After reportedly spending about $250,000, Garfield county officials opted to end the research project on the second draft, saying they have enough information already to make decisions on the project.

Bruce Baizel, an oil and gas accountability attorney for Earthworks, said in addition to identifying several “significant public health issues related to natural-gas development,” the study revealed the lack of data available to assess impacts.

Josh Joswick, an energy issues organizer for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said, “There’s no doubt in my mind there are health concerns for people who live near oil and gas wells.”

Like some Garfield County community members, Joswick expressed disappointment that commissioners there didn’t extend the research contract to get it finished.

“It just shows how much influence the industry has,” Joswick said.

Baizel concurred, saying the industry not only worked to undermine the study, but some state agencies refused to participate in its development and then later criticized it.

The debate rages at the national and international levels, though, he said.

“The disconnect between the refusal to address the impacts and the increasing number of people simply calling for a ban on further natural-gas development seems to have escaped most decision-makers here in Colorado,” Baizel said.

Antero Resources has questioned the report’s findings in letters to Garfield County officials saying its problems are “extensive.” The company also voiced concerns to state officials, whom some news outlets have indicated might be eyeing the report as a potential model for evaluating drilling impacts.

Local industry representatives also discount the potential implications.

Christie Zeller, executive director of the La Plata Energy Council, said it “doesn’t have a lot of weight” in addressing local impacts because of the differences in geology and gas development between here and Garfield County. She said state regulations are rigorous enough, and “it’s probably time to quit spending money on studies and just ensure the enforcement of good regulations,” which she said can be the most effective way to reassure the public.

But for Joswick and other like-minded residents, studies such as this confirm health risks they suspected all along. And with La Plata County commissioners aiming to push future gas and oil well development into areas where well pads and other gas and oil infrastructure already exists, some worry their health risks will grow.

County officials said the goal is to cut down the number of new well sites in the future to prevent further surface and resident disturbances.

Baizel said further “downspacing” of wells will mean more wells near homes and schools, and it will increase the need for large-scale assessments similar to the one in Garfield County.

Meschke said the San Juan Basin Health Department could play a greater role – as the Garfield County health department did – in looking at gas development’s impacts on children, schools, homes, day care centers and water supplies.

“There’s a lot to examine from an environmental standpoint on these proposals, but we’re not currently examining them,” Meschke said.

hscofield@ durangoherald.com