Pollution worst at drilling stage, study says

A yearlong study in Garfield County found the highest incidence of certain air pollutants occurred during drilling, rather than other stages of oil and gas development including hydraulic fracturing.

A paper published by Paonia-based scientists also concluded that “air sampling near natural gas operations reveals numerous chemicals in the air, many associated with natural gas operations.”

Many chemicals were detected at levels well below federal safety standards, but still may pose health hazards, according to the findings in a new, peer-reviewed paper accepted for publication by the international journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment. Among its four authors are Theo Colborn, founder of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a Paonia-based nonprofit, and Carol Kwiatkowski, the group’s executive director.

Colborn was a 2008 recipient of the Göteborg Award for Sustainable Development in Sweden. TDEX focuses on health and environmental harms of chemicals that interfere with hormones important in the development of people and wildlife.

Researchers working on the new study did sampling about seven-tenths of a mile from a WPX Energy gas well pad before, during and after gas development there. The pad is between Rifle and Parachute, and WPX used closed-loop, or pitless, drilling there.

The study found methane, ethane, propane and toluene in every sample, including pre-drilling samples. Kwiatkowski said that’s probably due to the high amount of surrounding gas development in that area.

The study said the fact that nonmethane hydrocarbon measurements were highest during the initial drilling stage is likely a result of the numerous opportunities for their release through venting and other means at that stage.

Noting the amount of focus paid to hydraulic fracturing, Kwiatkowski said the study is a reminder that while water pollution from drilling is a possibility, “air pollution is a certainty.”

The study said government safety standards typically are based on exposures to grown men over a brief time period, such as at a job site, rather than the continuous exposure to multiple chemicals that people such as children, pregnant women and the elderly may experience near drilling.

Some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were detected at concentrations that, while seemingly low, are higher than levels connected by research to lower developmental and IQ scores in prenatally exposed children, the study said. It also said that many chemicals that were found at levels well below federal standards still can affect the endocrine system, particularly harming prenatal and childhood development.

Nearly three-quarters of samples detected methylene chloride, in some cases in high concentrations. It’s a toxic solvent that researchers say reportedly is sometimes used for cleaning purposes at well pads.

WPX spokeswoman Susan Alvillar said the company hadn’t heard of the study until Monday “and will certainly review” it.

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, pointed out that the study itself notes that the detected chemicals can’t be causally connected to natural gas operations.

He added, “This seems less of a study supporting their theory of health impacts due to natural gas activity than it is that they disagree with longstanding (federal) health and safety standards.”

The well pad in the study is about a mile south of Interstate 70. However, researchers say the pollutants that were found are more associated with gas development than road-based pollution.

The study says natural gas development is moving closer to homes, schools and businesses even as more raw gas is being released into the atmosphere, and it calls for more research into human and environmental health impacts.

“In order to determine how to reduce human exposure for both those who work on the well pads and those living nearby, systematic air quality monitoring of natural gas operations must become a regular part of permitting requirements,” it says.

Garfield County commissioners recently agreed to pay $1 million toward a $1.8 million study that will be led by Colorado State University and seeks to better characterize how air emissions disperse near drilling sites. The energy industry has committed $800,000 toward that research.


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Theo Colborn is a serious scientist, who has presented her findings for a peer review. Sadly I remember Craig Meis laughing at the mention of her name in a County Commissioner’s meeting—the one where he rammed through an industry drafted resolution about oil shale that was lacking in both fact and science. (The same resolution was recinded by Garfield County when they got sued for violating Colorado’s open meeting laws.)

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