Fracking study warns of air pollution threat

Researchers say Garfield County data suggest people living close to hydraulic fracturing by energy companies face a higher risk of health problems from air pollution.

Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado-Denver make the conclusion in a soon-to-be-published study. They did their analysis of air samples near well pads with the goal of supporting a drilling-related health impact assessment that Garfield County commissioners ended prematurely following criticism from the oil and gas industry.

The new study found that both non-cancer and cancer risks increase for residents living within a half-mile of wells.

“Subchronic exposures to air pollutants during well completion activities present the greatest potential for health effects,” it found.

These activities involve injecting fluids into wells under high pressure to crack open formations, then flowing back fluids, oil and gas to the surface.

The study said the well completions result in exposure to trimethylbenzenes, aliaphatic hydrocarbons and xylenes, which can have neurological and respiratory effects such as eye irritation, headaches, sore throat and difficulty breathing. Some Garfield County residents have complained of such symptoms in connection with nearby oil and gas development.

The report said the cumulative risk of getting cancer was 10 in a million for residents within a half-mile of wells, versus 6 in a million for those living farther away, largely as a result of benzene exposure.

“Our data show that it is important to include air pollution in the national dialogue on natural gas development that has focused largely on water exposures to hydraulic fracturing,” Lisa McKenzie, the study’s lead author, said in a news release.

Researchers began exploring the air pollution threat from drilling as part of a study designed to help Garfield County try to minimize impacts of up to 200 wells Antero Resources plans to drill in the residential community of Battlement Mesa. County commissioners last year ended that study after a second draft was completed, saying it was growing into something more than originally intended. Antero had criticized some of that study’s findings and the industry had contended it was being used for larger political purposes.

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said association members agree with McKenzie that more air quality research is needed, and that’s why it’s working with Colorado State University to provide more reliable data on the subject. Companies have shown that they’ll change how they do business where good science warrants it, he said.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is considering whether current setback requirements between well pads and homes are adequate. Those setbacks currently can be as little as 150 feet, although drilling rarely occurs that close to homes.


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