State program for oil and gas complaints makes debut

Residents living in the oil and gas patch now have a new place to call with concerns about possible health impacts.

The new complaint line is part of the Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program being rolled out by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in response to a recommendation of the recent state oil and gas task force. The program also is setting up a clearinghouse on oil and gas health information based on the task force’s recommendations.

The department also is working on starting up a mobile air-monitoring program, as called for by the task force, to be operated through its Air Pollution Control Division.

The Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program has set up a website at http://www.oghir.dphe.state.co.us, where the information clearinghouse is located and information on filing complaints is provided.

The task force was created by Gov. John Hickenlooper to try to address conflicts between oil and gas development and residents. It agreed on nine recommendations. The Legislature has acted on some, such as boosting Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staffing and converting some temporary air quality-monitoring employees in CDPHE into full-time workers. New legislative funding also is enabling the latest CDPHE initiatives.

Some recommendations require COGCC rule-making, which the agency is going through to address issues such as large-scale oil and gas facilities near urban areas.

Dr. Daniel Vigil is heading the new health information and response program. He told the COGCC commission this week a toxicologist also has been hired, and a case manager will be brought on as well.

Health concerns can be reported at 303-389-1687, or via a form that can be filled out at the website. Vigil said calls will be answered daytime, evenings and weekends by agents who will forward callers’ contact information to the response program. A program representative will then be in touch to discuss their concerns, collect information, and in some cases take steps such as talking to a doctor, asking the caller to complete a survey on symptoms and quality of life, deploying mobile air-monitoring, or working with COGCC or CDPHE inspectors.

“Now, honestly we don’t expect in many cases to be able to identify specific causes of people’s symptoms, but we’ll discuss with them what we know, what we don’t know,” Vigil said. “And we hope in time our program will contribute to knowledge about possible health effects.”

The program also will learn of concerns through other avenues, such as complaints lodged with other agencies such as the COGCC.

Vigil said as the program records and tracks information it has received, it will analyze data for patterns and relationships, also considering hospital data, results of surveys on symptoms and air monitoring results, and other information.

The program also has begun a formal literature review of health research related to oil and gas development, and will post assessments at the clearinghouse link.

“All of this in time can contribute to community-level health-risk assessments depending on available resources,” Vigil said.

Funding for a health-risk assessment was also part of the task force’s recommendations.

Vigil said the clearinghouse now primarily contains links to outside information from sources such as the COGCC, but the program eventually will start adding its own analysis of research and other information as it becomes available.

Dr. Larry Wolk, CDPHE’s executive director and chief medical officer, initially suggested to the task force that it support creation of a health complaint system that could trigger responses including deployment of a mobile monitoring unit. Both he and John Adgate, who is a researcher at the Colorado School of Public Health and worked on a health impact assessment related to proposed drilling in Battlement Mesa, cited value in a complaint registry that could be systematically analyzed and studied.

Leslie Robinson, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance in Garfield County, welcomed the recent actions of the CDPHE. She said it represents a new direction for the agency after it seemed to work against citizens as they pushed for an adequate health impact assessment years ago in the residential community of Battlement Mesa. Garfield County commissioners ultimately ended the School of Public Health assessment at a draft stage, after CDPHE raised methodological and other concerns about it and the industry also questioned it.

“When this came up in the task force, it was like, why did it take six years to get our point across that we need more health studies done, those that have to live next to oil and gas development?” Robinson said.

She’d like to see the state eventually do an overall oil and gas health-impact assessment.

“The citizens want to take giant steps in protecting health but it seems like the government’s always taking itsy-bitsy steps, but at least going forward,” Robinson said.

Ursa Resources is proposing drilling 53 wells from two pads within Battlement Mesa, raising concerns from some residents there just as the COGCC is trying to address the task-force recommendation regarding large facilities near urban areas.

Robinson believes many of the conflicts the state is trying to address would go away if it just required larger setbacks between drilling and homes. The state currently allows drilling as close as 500 feet from homes, and even closer in certain circumstances. Robinson would like to see 2,000-foot setbacks.

“There’s one easy way to resolve all of (the conflicts), is to not do any residential drilling that would impact people,” she said.


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