Garfield study eyed in drilling hearing

A study of possible health effects of drilling based on Garfield County data drew heavy attention Tuesday as the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission continued a hearing on proposed rules governing setbacks of wells from buildings.

The scrutiny came as the commission also heard concerns from residents who say they suffer maladies from living near drilling and want setbacks large enough to better safeguard them.

“These policies need to protect vulnerable populations. They need to address community concerns and they need to take action to address unsafe exposures,” Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the commission.

Speaking as an expert witness for the Western Resource Advocates conservation group, she called for minimum 1,000-foot setbacks between buildings and wells. The current minimums are 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas. Oil and gas commission staff have proposed 500-foot minimum setbacks unless certain exceptions are met, such as obtaining approval from all building owners within 500 feet in urban areas.

In supporting larger setbacks, Rotkin-Ellman cited a study released last year by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Denver. Authored by Lisa McKenzie and making use of data from previous research the School of Public Health did for Garfield County, it found that both non-cancer and cancer risks increased for residents living within a half-mile of wells.

But Dollis Wright, recently the director of epidemiology for the state of Indiana and an expert witness for the industry, said the study only found a significant risk if someone lived at a well pad 95 percent of the time.

“The fact of the matter is nobody’s living right at the well pad,” she said.

Several commissioners grilled Rotkin-Ellman on the study, including Dr. Chris Urbina, also the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He said one challenge in studies is separating out oil and gas air pollutants from others that exist in an area.

Wright said the state health department just did a study in Erie, showing air pollutants from an oil and gas site weren’t a problem.

But Erie resident April Beach said she lives within 1,000 feet of a well, and described a host of ailments she said her family has suffered.

The oil and gas industry had sought unsuccessfully to bar such testimony from drilling-area residents due to their lack of medical expertise.

Said Beach, “I am an expert in living next to a well site.”

Mayors Tom Norton of Greeley and Joe Wilson of Erie both called for keeping current setback rules unchanged, saying the new rules would curtail drilling and hurt their economies. But U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, said even 500-foot setbacks aren’t sufficient to respond to the concerns of his constituents.


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