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County nosing into clean air issue

Dennis Webb
Post Independent Staff

Researchers will use a mix of monitoring stations and trained “odor assessors” to sniff out the quality of Garfield County’s air over the next two years.

County officials hope the study will help show the degree to which natural gas development, traffic and other activities foul the air residents breathe.

The county will spend $380,000 on the study, but also received a $10,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Much of the study will be conducted by Colorado Mountain College’s Natural Resource Management Institute, based in Leadville. NRMI contracts to do environmental sampling work for the Environmental Protection Agency, private industry and other customers.

The county also plans to involve local high schools in the project. It is planning to locate monitoring stations at Rifle High School, the Coal Ridge High School now under construction between Silt and New Castle, and possibly at Glenwood Springs High School, although researchers instead may opt for a Glenwood Springs site closer to the Interstate 70 corridor. A station also will be placed at the border of Garfield and Mesa counties, in an attempt to establish a baseline measure of air quality before it enters from the west. The prevailing wind direction in the county is from west to east.

Also planned is a mobile station that can be used to respond to specific areas of concern, such as when a resident complains about odors related to gas development.

The program also is seeking volunteers who can investigate odor complaints. County oil and gas auditor Doug Dennison said they will be sent to Denver for a day of training aimed at helping to “calibrate” their noses to detect potential pollution problems. The county currently has a monitoring station in Parachute. In the past, more widespread monitoring has occurred, such as during the uranium mill tailings cleanup in Rifle during the 1990s.

“We’re going to try to dig up as much of that old data as we can,” Dennison said.

Western Garfield county residents have pressed for more monitoring out of concerns about emissions related to gas development. Adding to their concerns are recent reports that energy development in Weld County is having a heavy impact on the quality of air in urban areas on the Front Range.

Dennison said the county initially asked the state health department to set up a local monitoring program, but was told it couldn’t do so due to the state budget crisis. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission made it clear it would be up to the county to fund a program, Dennison said. The county also was turned down when it requested state energy impact funds for the effort. That decision frustrated Dennison, and mystified Sam Robinson of Parachute, one of several members of the public to attend a presentation on the program this week in Rifle.

“What is the purpose of this energy impact fund if it’s not to do something like this?” asked Robinson, who made gas development the centerpiece of an unsuccessful campaign for a state House of Representatives seat last fall.

The state health department will provide technical assistance in setting up the program and analyzing data, and will donate sampling equipment. The EPA also will provide equipment.

Oni Butterfly, who lives in gas drilling country south of Silt, questioned the placement of some monitoring stations in the Interstate 70 corridor.

“How are you going to distinguish which is transportation-related and which is gas-related?” she asked Dennison.

In fact, he said, the program isn’t intended to gauge only emissions from gas development. Initially, at least, it is intended to look at all sources. After the initial program is completed, it can be revamped as is warranted.

“Hopefully at that point the state will be able to pick up the biggest cost of doing it,” he said.

Samples can be sent in for chemical analysis, to see if emissions come from gas development, vehicles, woodsmoke or other sources.

Butterfly worries about the combined health effects of the county’s pollution sources.

“I’m very concerned with the synergistic impacts of all of this mixed together,” she said.

Dennison said he hears complaints that there is more haze in the valley than before. But he warned that the initial testing program may not answer all of the public’s concerns about air quality.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can with $380,000 but unfortunately it doesn’t go real far,” he said.

“I hope this is just the first step in a much bigger project.”

The monitors will detect particulates, along with volatile organic compounds such as benzene, which are associated with gas development. Ozone won’t be tested under the program. Dennison said he was warned by EPA officials that the county might want to rethink whether it wants to test air quality because the results may lead to things such as mandatory vehicle inspections. But residents living near gas development say testing is needed and can’t happen fast enough.

“Why can’t we slow this drilling down until we get a handle on this?” asked Eric Porter of Silt.

That’s not going to happen, Dennison said.

“The economics of the natural gas industry are such that they’re going to drill like crazy.”

County commissioner Tresi Houpt said it’s still important to do air testing.

“It gives us the opportunity to have the information we need if we do have to stay let’s slow down, or enough is enough,” she said.

Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516

dwebb@postindependent.com


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