BATTLEMENT MESA, Colorado - A public health assessment meant to study and offer advance recommendations on potential impacts to Battlement Mesa residents from future natural gas drilling, is on track for a final report to be issued this fall.
"Rather than measuring past impacts on health, the goal with this project is to try to measure future impacts," Dr. Roxana Witter, a researcher with the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH), explained during a meeting attended by about 65 Battlement Mesa residents and other concerned citizens Tuesday.
The CSPH was contracted by Garfield County earlier this year to conduct a health impact assessment (HIA) related to Antero Resources' plans to drill up to 200 natural gas wells within the boundaries of the Battlement Mesa Planned Unit Development.
The county agreed to pay an estimated $257,000 for the HIA, as well as a longer-term community health analysis that will look at health-related impacts over time.
Witter reported that a proposed grant from the Pew Charitable Trust for $150,000 was not obtained, since the county had agreed to fund the study. However, the organization is offering technical assistance and training in the effort, she said.
"Our work is not meant to derail a project or policy, but to offer recommendations and alternatives that include health concerns before final decisions are made," Witter said.
A provision in the original development approvals for Battlement Mesa, an unincorporated community of about 5,000 residents south of Parachute, requires that any natural resource extraction within the PUD go through a county special use permit process.
Antero officials had earlier indicated that their "community drilling plan" would be submitted to the county by early May. However, the county has yet to receive the application, and Antero officials in the meantime have met with researchers who are developing the HIA.
Witter said she and other research team members visited four Antero drilling sites in late April to talk with company geologists and gather site data. That was followed by two meetings with company officials in Denver to talk specifically about their plans for Battlement Mesa.
"We do feel like we've developed a good working relationship with the people at Antero," Witter said.
Some members of the Battlement Concerned Citizens (BCC) group and others have speculated that Antero may wait until the HIA recommendations are released before proceeding with the special use permit application.
A draft set of findings and recommendations is due out by Sept. 15, which will be presented to the public. A final report is expected by Oct. 31, Witter said.
Antero representatives attending Tuesday's meeting, held at the Battlement Mesa firehouse, made no comments on their intended time frame. Officials in Denver have also not returned recent phone calls from the Post Independent seeking comment.
"Your concern in this issue made this project possible," Witter told BCC members, who were well represented at the meeting.
Researchers are currently in the process of gathering data, which will soon be followed by the analysis phase, she said.
In addition to a baseline health study, the analysis will include air, water and soil quality monitoring as well as medical information related to current health conditions among Battlement residents.
It will also seek full disclosure of materials used in the drilling and fracturing - or frac'ing - process, Witter said. However, anything that is deemed a "trade secret" is still proprietary information unless federal and/or Colorado laws change, she advised.
Through resources such as the Colorado Hospital Association, the Grand River Hospital District and the Colorado Health Department's Cancer Registry, the HIA will include information on a variety of health conditions that could be compromised by drilling activity within Battlement Mesa.
"Social" impacts, such as mental health, crime, traffic accidents, impacts on schools and education, drug and alcohol abuse, and child or spousal abuse, will also be covered in the study, she said.
"We're trying to accomplish as much as we can with the HIA, to the point where we can actually affect some change," Witter said.
Several citizens commented on additional items they would like to see included in the study, including potential impacts from drilling rig fires and affects on the community's drinking water from natural gas activity farther upstream.
However, because the HIA is limited to Antero's plans within Battlement Mesa, impacts from other area activity will not be assessed in the study, Witter said.