EPA considers expanding fracturing study to air quality
Recently retired Environmental Protection Agency environmental engineer Weston Wilson is best known for criticizing his employer’s 2004 finding that hydraulic fracturing poses little or no risk to domestic groundwater.
Now, the Denver EPA whistleblower is encouraged by the agency’s interest in studying the natural gas development procedure’s potential impacts on air quality as well.
“I’m proud of EPA now,” not just for undertaking the study, but indicating it may expand the study’s reach beyond water, Wilson said.
His position puts him at odds with the oil and gas industry. At a Denver EPA meeting this summer, several industry representatives argued the study should be limited, as directed by a congressional committee, to the relationship between fracturing and groundwater. “And certainly not air quality,” as Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance put it.
But one of a number of Garfield County residents who say their health has been affected by drilling says he supports the idea of the EPA considering whether fracturing creates airborne health concerns as well.
“I think they should look at all aspects that affect public health,” Ron Galterio said.
He and several other Battlement Mesa residents say they’ve suffered ill effects from fumes from recent nearby fracturing operations by Antero Resources.
Josh Joswick of the San Juan Citizens Alliance told the EPA during its Denver meeting, “I don’t think you can study water without studying air.”
Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into wells under high pressure to crack open formations and facilitate flow of gas and oil. The process has been key to developing gas in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, where gas is mostly locked in sandstone formations until fracturing occurs.
“Simply put, without hydraulic fracturing, western Colorado’s natural gas activity would virtually cease to exist,” Doug Flanders, director of policy for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, told the EPA at its Denver meeting.
But the process has raised fears that, in addition to drinking water aquifers, it could contaminate air when fracturing fluids and gas are brought to the surface.
Wilson, who obtained whistleblower protective status when he sent a report to Congress questioning his agency’s 2004 findings on fracturing, said part of the argument for looking into air-quality effects of fracturing arises from a health study conducted for Garfield County.
He said that study showed “mixed results” about what dangers gas development might present, but one disturbing finding involves benzene. The study said airborne benzene could exceed acceptable non-cancer health-risk levels within 250 meters downwind of well-flowback operations that don’t include gas recovery. It recommended use of “green” well completions to reduce this risk.
The report said neurotoxicity, depressed bone-marrow function, an impaired immune system and blood disorders are among the non-cancer risks of benzene, which also is a carcinogen.
“If that is an effect of oil and gas drilling, of fracking, it’s systemic, it’s endemic,” Wilson said. “It’s evaporating from the reserve pits and the condensate tanks. It’s not as if the current state of the art protects the public health from those volatile organics.”
Benzene is one of several volatile organic compounds associated with gas development. It can be contained both in fracturing fluid and the gas itself. Fracturing fluids also can contain numerous other toxic substances, which aren’t required to be disclosed to the public.
Some Battlement Mesa residents, including Galterio, recently complained of nausea, dizziness, coughing, burning eyes and other ill effects of fracturing by Antero just outside their community. They say the situation adds to their fears about what will happen if Antero proceeds with plans to drill 200 wells within Battlement Mesa.
Over the years, other Garfield County residents living near gas development have complained of similar symptoms from fracturing and other operations.
Marc Smith, executive director of the Western Energy Alliance (formerly the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States), said air quality is an important topic, and it’s not that the industry objects to studying it at some point as it pertains to fracturing.
“It’s always within the jurisdiction of EPA to look at human health and environmental issues, and by no means are we saying that the EPA doesn’t have a right to do that. What we do believe is that their interest in that area should not delay the timely completion of the study on hydraulic fracturing,” he said.
The EPA is still finalizing its study plans, but Smith said it appears to be vastly broadening the study scope. That would make it take longer to complete, and industry is anxious to see the agency issue findings that address the question of fracturing and groundwater.
“Industry believes it will provide the peace of mind to communities to have the EPA confirm what other reports have indicated, which is that state regulatory programs provide a high level of protection for groundwater,” he said.
Timely completion of the study is important because there are already federal legislative proposals “to address a problem that we don’t know even exists, and the sooner there is closure, the sooner good policy can be formulated,” Smith said.
The EPA also is going through a separate process to consider updating its air-pollution rules involving the oil and gas industry. Smith said that might be an appropriate process for considering fracturing and air quality, although he doesn’t know the best way the agency should be delegating its staff and resources.
Wilson said he can’t judge whether fracturing poses a serious threat to air quality.
“I don’t know. That’s sort of the Catch-22 of this industry, so little is known,” he said.
But he said people complaining of ailments deserve to at least have their concerns investigated.
Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff have cited Antero with an alleged violation in the Battlement Mesa case. Galterio said the company says it is using a closed system rather than open pits, and is containing flowback and produced water in tanks, but that didn’t prevent the problem with fumes.
Jon Black, Antero’s local operations manager, said the company is using equipment that exceeds the state’s green completion requirements.
He said the company plans to incorporate additional “best management practices” during the next round of fracking and flowback. It also is using equipment to measure odors, a weather station and other means of applying science to what otherwise can be a subjective matter, he said.
“It’s one of those ambiguous issues, and the reason I say that is everybody’s got a different level of sensitivity and perception to odor,” he said.
But Galterio said that with people becoming ill, residents took issue with Antero’s contention during a recent meeting that the fumes were mere nuisance odors because they didn’t exceed air-quality standards.
“We told them that the odors were much more than a nuisance to some people,” he said.