GRAND JUCTION FREE PRESS - 5/20/11 Community Health Risks

May 20, 2011

Sharon Sullivan
ssullivan@gjfreepress.com
Grand Junction Free Press
Staff Writer

 

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Retired Battlement Mesa resident Paul Light has friends who live outside of town who believe their headaches, nausea and insomnia are caused by the gas drilling and fracking near their homes.

His daughter, who lives south of Silt and is surrounded by gas drilling, stopped drinking her water because of health problems she attributes to contamination of her well. They won't even use the water for washing anymore, Light said.

“We know a lot of people in Garfield County who have been sickened and died from suspected exposure to drilling activity,” Light said.

Battlement Mesa in Garfield County is a community of about 5,000 residents, built during the 1970s by Exxon Corporation for its oil shale development project. When the company abruptly abandoned the project after a downturn in oil prices, the company marketed the town as a good place to retire and sold the surface rights of the planned urban development (a special section of land set aside long ago for a planned community) to the Battlement Mesa Co., a real estate/development company that owns most of Battlement Mesa.

In 2009, Antero Resources announced plans to develop natural gas within the Battlement Mesa planned urban development area. Antero wants to construct 10 well pads and drill 200 natural gas wells, potentially 400-500 feet from residential homes and recreational areas within Battlement Mesa.

Hundreds of Battlement Mesa residents are unhappy about the prospect, fearing impacts to their health, environment and safety if Antero's plans are approved. Battlement Concerned Citizens was formed with the help of Western Colorado Congress, an alliance for community action with an office in Grand Junction, to address concerns to Garfield County Commissioners.

“One of our first actions was to ask the commissioners for a Health Impact Assessment,” to be conducted before any permits were approved, Light said. “We did that by petitions signed by 400 people.”

Commissioners responded by asking the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and the Colorado School of Public Health to conduct the health impact assessment — the first one ever conducted regarding oil and gas development in Colorado.

Authored by public health experts from the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado at Denver, the report states that the “health of Battlement Mesa residents will most likely be affected by chemical exposures, accidents, emergencies, and stress-related community changes.”

The report identifies eight areas that could be impacted by natural gas development near residential areas: air pollution, water and soil contamination, community wellness, economic impacts, traffic from industry, noise and light pollution, accidents and malfunctions, and impacts to the health care system.

When the Free Press contacted Antero's vice president of production Kevin Kilstrom, he first said the company had “no comment” on the health impact assessment. Then Kilstrom said: “We think there's some major flaws in that study,” — but he refused to give an example.

“I don't want to give an example; there are so many flaws, in my opinion.”

ANTERO SCOFFS AT PUBLIC HEALTH STUDY

The heath impact assessment document contains more than 70 recommendations based on what is known about impacts from natural gas development — “hence the controversy,” Smith said.

One of those recommendations would require full public disclosure of the chemicals used in natural gas development.

“We don't know all the chemicals emitted,” Smith said. “We need to know to predict health effects and prepare emergency response measures.”

The document also recommends increasing well pad setbacks from homes. Current setbacks of 500 feet is an arbitrary number that has not been determined safe for homeowners, according to the report.

The authors recommend investment in better recovery technologies to reduce air pollution.

The document also recognizes there are many “data gaps” — that consistent monitoring, and data collection should take place and with full public disclosure.

“This is about pro-active and preventive public health action,” Smith said.

While the health impact assessment focused on Garfield County, the 70-plus recommendations apply also to Mesa County where watersheds are threatened by proposed drilling, Smith said.

The Colorado School of Public Health had completed its second draft when Garfield County Commissioners voted May 2 to not extend its contract with the university, preventing the authors from submitting a final, completed document.

According to the county commissioners website “Antero's representatives asked that the commission not view the HIA as a final document or as a basis for decision making.”

Antero threatened legal action in a letter to Garfield County Commissioners if the health impact assessment was considered in its permitting process.

“They've (Antero) fought the first draft, now they're fighting the second draft,” Light said.

HIA ‘USABLE IN ITS CURRENT FORM'

Light and others such as Smith believe a final completed document would lend more weight toward consideration of health impacts when making decisions concerning resource development. Battlement Mesa residents met with commissioners Monday to ask them to reconsider extending the contract, but the item was not on the agenda so no action could be taken. Citizens will go back to the county commission in June with their request.

“All this good work by a credible academic institution could fall by the wayside because of county or state politics,” Smith said.

However, Garfield County environmental health manager Jim Rada said the health impact assessment document is usable in its current form.

“The research team did everything they were asked to do,” Rada said. “My sense is the research is completed, and the document itself is in a usable form.”

According to its website, Garfield County Commissioners agree that the second draft contains information needed to make decisions regarding potential health impacts of Antero's proposed natural gas development project in unincorporated Battlement Mesa when an application is submitted.

Commissioners Mike Simpson and Tom Jankowsky did not return calls to the Free Press.

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