By Mark Jaffe, Denver Post, June 1, 2014
When Noble Energy started drilling a well about 650 feet from Eric Ewing’s rural Weld County home in March, the noise was fierce and the house shook — but that’s not what worries Ewing.
“It’s the fumes,” said Ewing, 39. “You can see them coming off some of the sites around here. They can make you dizzy.
“I don’t know if I should be worried. I mean, I have two small children, a 5-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy. Am I putting them in jeopardy?”
There is no clear answer to Ewing’s question, environmental health researchers say.
“There is a lot of rhetoric but not a lot of data,” said Paul Lioy, a professor of environmental medicine at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “There has been no systematic approach to see what, if anything, people are coming in contact with and what impact it may have.”
Still, as the hunt for oil gathers speed on Colorado’s Front Range — oil companies have identified more than 20,000 drilling sites in the Niobrara shale formation — worries about possible health effects are being voiced.
And it isn’t just in Colorado; 15 shale plays across the U.S. are now being drilled.
“Folks are concerned about oil and gas coming to their neighborhoods,” said state Rep. Joann Ginal, a Fort Collins Democrat. “People just want to know if there is a risk.”
For two years, Ginal-sponsored bills for a Front Range health review have died in committee, with the state’s oil and gas industry opposing the legislation.
Industry critics said Ginal’s analysis would be “duplicative” of other studies available and that complaints such as Ewing’s are anecdotal.
“We aren’t opposed to a health study,” said Doug Flanders, director of policy for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, a trade group. “We just don’t want it to be a political football.”
No studies have shown “adverse impact during normal operations,” said Dollis Wright, a toxicologist and consultant for COGA.
That is little comfort to Ewing, who lives on the outskirts of LaSalle. “I feel like I am living in an industrial zone,” Ewing said.
Noble has delayed hydrofracturing — pumping water, sand and trace chemicals under pressure into the well to crack rock and release oil.
“After discussions with Mr. Ewing and other adjacent landowners, we implemented measures to address concerns during the drilling process,” Noble vice president Dan Kell y said in a statement.
But stories like Ewing’s are repeated by families in Wise County in Texas and Washington County in Pennsylvania.
“How come we see the same effects in oil and gas areas from Colorado to Texas to Pennsylvania?” asked David Brown, a consultant for the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.
The nonprofit project monitors health concerns in Washington County, which sits atop the Marcellus shale.
“Everything is anecdotal until you do a comprehensive study,” said Brown, the former chief of environmental epidemiology and occupational health for the state of Connecticut.
So what is known about oil and gas development and health?
In terms of toxic exposures or studies of health complaints related to oil and gas operations, very little has been done, researchers say.
What is becoming clearer — primarily in peer-reviewed scientific studies — are the types of air emissions to which people in close proximity to oil and gas operations may be exposed. The studies on the impact of drilling on water quality are more limited.
• After 2,000 wells were drilled within Fort Worth, Texas, a city-sponsored study recorded 90 air pollutants associated with oil and gas operations, including formaldehyde, benzene and toluene.
Except for one compressor station, exposure levels were below federal health standards.
• A 2014 study of Utah’s Uintah Basin concluded that the oil fields were the source of 99 percent of the volatile organic chemicals in the air. The level of those compounds, excluding methane, were higher than in the 28 largest U.S. cities and Mexico City.
Levels of benzene exceeded a chronic-effects health threshold in 254 of 329 measurements taken in 2013, the study said.
• A Wyoming Department of Health study found that in the Pinedale area, which suffers from oil and gas operation-linked ozone pollution, each 10 parts per billion increase in ozone led to a 3 percent increase in health clinic visits.
• A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study of the Front Range calculated that oil and gas-related methane emissions were three times higher than government estimates and benzene emissions were seven times higher.
“Across the country we are seeing a very similar picture,” said Detlev Helmig, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder who worked on the Uintah study.
In February, Colorado adopted tougher air emission controls on oil and gas operations, requiring operators to capture 95 percent of the volatile organic emissions, and the nation’s first methane controls.
Helmig questions whether the 95 percent standard is protective enough with the prospect of thousands of wells being drilled on the Front Range.
“Five percent of something that is really, really big is huge,” Helmig said. “What is needed is a real number: How many tons have to be captured.”
Colorado officials concede that setting a cost-effective emissions standard and a health standard are not the same.
“We recognize that there is a lot we don’t know,” said Garry Kaufman, deputy director of the state’s Air Pollution Control Division. “We can’t tell how the regulations translate into health, but we know it is a good thing.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is also monitoring health outcomes in oil and gas areas, said Dr. Larry Wolk, the department’s executive director and chief medical officer.
Wolk said the department would be “vigilant” in looking for clusters of health problems, such as asthma, low birth weights or cancer.
The department has already analyzed a series of birth “anomalies” in Garfield County and determined there was no single cause — such as oil and gas operations.
But between monitoring health and setting emission levels, something is missing, Rutgers’ Lioy said.
“There is a big blind spot, and that is what people are being exposed to and what is the effect,” Lioy said.
The few studies that have tried to get at this have been controversial.
A University of Colorado Denver School of Public Health analysis at Battlement Mesa calculated that residents were exposed to volatile emissions at levels five times above a federal hazard level.
The 2012 study of three years of data was criticized by the industry for looking at data that preceded tougher state emission standards.
Anti-drilling activists misinterpreted the data, claiming people living within a half-mile of a well had a 66 percent greater risk of getting cancer —the study estimated the risk of an added cancer case was about 0.1 percent.
“The polarization just isn’t helpful,” said John Adgate, head of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health. “We are arguing over what doesn’t exist.”
A second Colorado School of Public Health study, published in January, analyzed about 125,000 rural births over a 13-year period and found a correlation between proximity to oil and gas wells and a 30 percent increase in cardiac birth defects.
There is, however, no clear indication to which exposures the defects could be linked.
“The study has limitations,” said the health department’s Wolk. “Even the authors acknowledged the things that weren’t taken into account.”
That is more reason to pursue the issue, said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
“This type of analysis is so crude it generally does not find statistically significant results,” Rotkin-Ellman said. “So, it is at least worth more study.”
Wright, the oil and gas association’s consultant, said that it appears “some studies have been done with a goal to do more studies, not provide answers to current public health concerns.”
An emerging issue is the fact that many oil and gas exposures, as in the case of the Ewings, comes in bursts.
“Our health standards are eight hours or daily, but what we are seeing is people exposed for a few hours at a time,” said Southwest Pennsylvania’s Brown.
In monitoring 14 houses near Pennsylvania drilling sites, in real-time for multiple periods, Brown found that levels of fine particles would spike as much as 22 times the average level a few times a day or week.
“So there can be extreme exposures to nearby residents and that can be made worse or better by weather,” Brown said. “What’s needed is continuous monitoring to better understand what is going on.”
CU-Boulder is heading a comprehensive, five-year, federally funded, $12 million oil and gas study, which will include a health-effects assessment.
The study, by Colorado School of Public Health researchers, will try to identify key “stressors” such as traffic and air pollution and their health risks.
They will not, however, look at actual health outcomes or do an epidemiological study on oil and gas exposures, according to Lisa McKenzie, one of the researchers.
Some opponents of oil and gas development have called for a halt to drilling until it is shown to be safe.
“It is already happening, and the argument that it is unsafe isn’t going to hold up,” said the Colorado School of Public Health’s Adgate. “The question is understanding the risk and handling it.”
COGA’s Wright said a meaningful step to address people’s immediate concerns is educating both the public and doctors about chemical exposure and setting up a monthly clinic for exposure evaluations.
Rep. Ginal said that she will introduce a bill for a comprehensive health survey in the next legislative session.
Weld County homeowner Ewing, who still gets hit with fumes, said he is still working with Noble.
“They are really nice people,” Ewing said. “It just seems the machine is bigger than the people. I wonder if I should just move.”
In 1994, wells were drilled near Karen Trulove’s home near Silt on the Western Slope.
“We’d smell odors. At first, we didn’t think much about it,” said Trulove, 67. Soon came sinus problems, headaches and burning eyes. Her husband was diagnosed with asthma.
The Trulove’s story is only partially documented, for despite filing more than 40 complaints with county and state health and oil and gas officials, by the time inspectors arrived, the odors were often gone.
The Truloves eventually sold their 40-acre spread near Silt — at a $70,000 loss, they say—and moved to Glenwood Springs.
“We are doing good,” Trulove said. “But I feel bad for people who are going through this now.”
Water impacts not well-documented. The impact of oil and gas drilling on groundwater is not as well-documented as its impact on the air.
A Duke University study found higher levels of methane in residential wells closer to oil and gas well sites in Pennsylvania, and researchers from the University of Texas-Arlington found elevated levels of arsenic in wells close to drilling in Texas.
Neither study had baseline tests for the water quality before drilling, and a Duke study in Arkansas’ Fayetteville shale showed no methane contamination.
Duke researchers also concluded that hydrofracturing, or fracking — which pumps water, sand and trace chemicals deep into wells under pressure — does not create sufficient pathways to drinking water aquifers in most situations.
“We have seen evidence on impacts on groundwater, but we really need more data,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University researcher.
The principal sources of contamination have been leaking wells and surface waste ponds, as a result of poor construction or management, and surface spills.
Studies in Garfield County and Pavillion, Wyo., documented the potential for surface discharges to pollute groundwater. Mark Jaffe, The Denver Post
Mark Jaffe: 303-954-1912, email@example.com or twitter.com/bymarkjaffe