Agencies haven’t cleared air about well blowout, pollution activists say

Amid concerns of activists about air pollution from a recent natural gas well blowout near Silt, two state agencies are pointing fingers at each other about which has regulatory authority over the matter.

Colorado clean-air advocate Jeremy Nichols, with WildEarth Guardians, said the state showed a disregard for public health during the incident last week. He also said the situation is symptomatic of a broader lack of accountability by state agencies when it comes to air emissions from oil and gas development.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission contends that air quality matters that threaten public health are the purview of the state Department of Public Health and Environment. In the meantime, said Nichols, health officials put the onus on oil and gas regulators.

“It’s just this weird circle of obfuscation,” he said.

Nichols and the group Western Colorado Congress say the state failed to show proper concern about possible health risks to residents when an Antero Resources well spewed gas for two days before being brought under control.

Antero said the gas dispersed and that gas monitors showed residents were safe from dangers such as an explosion.

Nichols and Western Colorado Congress worry about benzene and other oil and gas byproducts that they say endangered residents.

“There are these other harmful compounds, and they should be measuring those,” Nichols said.

Christopher Dann, spokesman for the state Air Pollution Control Division, said the oil and gas commission, and not his division, has authority over emissions coming directly from wells.

“I don’t know that I agree with their interpretation,” said Tricia Beaver, hearings manager for the oil and gas commission. “It seems to me that if we have an air quality control division, that those are the experts.”

Nichols agrees and said the state health department is taking too much of a hands-off approach in general to oil and gas development. He doesn’t see the air-quality situation improving much under comprehensive rule-making being undertaken by the oil and gas commission. The new rules address nuisance odors in a few counties, including Garfield County, but they ignore more widespread public health concerns related to emissions, he said.

But Dave Neslin, the oil and gas commission’s acting director, said the commission and health department plan to look into air-quality issues next year and will decide how to cooperate if new rules are needed.

Judy Jordan, the Garfield County oil and gas liaison, said she didn’t receive any complaints from residents about emissions from the well blowout. She said while there could be some concerns over short-term exposure to benzene if it is breathed in high concentrations, in this case any danger appeared to be minimized by the rapid dispersal of gas and byproducts into the air.


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