Garfield County should complete Battlement Mesa health impact assessment
On Monday, the Battlement Concerned Citizens formally petitioned the Garfield County commissioners to reconsider their decision to terminate the incomplete Battlement Mesa health impact assessment under way by the Colorado School of Public Health.
The commissioners should take the opportunity to reverse the perception that they have capitulated to the industry by granting the citizens’ request. Failure to do so will leave them open to the charge that they used a flimsy excuse to thwart their constituents request for a “completed” study.
The request points out that numerous Garfield County residents have expressed their feelings through local media outlets that the HIA project should be completed.
They also cite an editorial in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent that says, “The commissioners should reverse this decision and allow the Colorado School of Public Health to complete the work and publish a final document.”
As critics of the commissioners’ decision point out, time ran out on the health impact assessment contract because the commissioners granted Antero additional time to comment on the report without extending the contract. Then, complaining of a “never ending” process, they canceled the study without notice.
The sudden cancellation of the assessment appears to serve only the interests of the oil and gas industry.
Former Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt, who was in office when the study was commissioned, put the charge very bluntly. “It appears to me,” she wrote in a letter to the Post Independent, “that the only reason the current commissioners voted to stop work on the HIA … is because they are unwilling to challenge the industry’s practices, even at the recommendation of medical professionals.”
Dave Devanney of Battlement Concerned Citizens told supporters in an email, “It may be that (the commissioners) and the industry did not like what they saw in the second draft. They saw a lot of recommendations being proposed that would cost money that they might not want to spend — recommendations that were ‘health-based’ to safeguard residents of Battlement Mesa.”
“I’m mad as hell!” he concluded.
Leslie Robinson, a Rifle activist with the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, said, “I think it’s ridiculous that they leave it unfinished. And it’s pressure from the industry” that convinced the county to leave it unfinished.
The commissioners made a futile attempt at pacifying their critics by offering assurances that the study would be used as a guide for approval of Antero development plans in Battlement Mesa.
However, Antero is likely to be able to challenge any decisions made on the basis of an incomplete study.
This point is underscored by a request from the Colorado School of Public Health for a letter stating they were ordered off the study. Because work to complete the study remains undone, the school cannot stand behind its conclusions, rendering the assessment useless as a scientific report.
Although the citizens who pressured the commissioners into approving the health impact assessment were focused on the Battlement Mesa community, for the industry this was a small battle in a much larger war. Its concern was not just that Battlement Mesa might require some mitigations of health impacts, but that the study might create a precedent for other communities facing similar problems from drilling.
Antero’s attorney charged that, “The HIA is based on largely exaggerated and unfounded perceptions.” She urged the commissioners to reject the findings of the health assessment.
But she also admitted that Antero is worried that the assessment “may be used as a model” by other communities threatened by similar plans for natural gas development.
So long as the health impact assessment is not finalized, one supporter pointed out, the industry can continue its assertion that no scientific evidence supports claims that drilling is a danger to public health.
With both sides taking such strong positions, the Garfield County commissioners should not take it upon themselves to pick winners and losers. Rather than terminate the study, they should authorize its completion without further delay.
Failure to do so will only strengthen the perception that the commissioners are protecting the industry at the expense of their Battlement Mesa constituents.