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Environmental concerns arise close to home for Paonia health analyst

Dennis WebbGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Theo Colborn’s battle to protect public health has taken her from western Colorado to Washington, D.C., and back.The 80-year-old Paonia resident finds her focus increasingly turning to Garfield County’s energy industry. That industry first caused her to take a mid-life detour toward her current career, and these days it concerns her because of the potential impacts of natural gas development on local water and air.The nationally recognized, and controversial, environmental health analyst will be speaking today at a Grand Valley Citizens Alliance brunch south of Silt, in the heart of drilling country. While that speech will be for GVCA members only, GVCA organizer Patrick Barker said the group hopes to arrange a local public presentation by Colborn soon.Colborn had a career as a pharmacist, and also farmed for a time in western Colorado. During Garfield County’s last oil shale boom, which ended in the early 1980s, she became concerned about how that industry might affect the quality of water used for irrigation and other purposes.She decided to go back to school, where she first studied fresh-water ecology and then earned a doctorate in zoology, with minors in epidemiology, toxicology and water chemistry. Some of her early field research focused on low-level toxicity of high-altitude streams near mines.A 1985 fellowship from the federal Office of Technology Assessment took her to the nation’s capital. Colborn said she helped write the first report the government put out on ozone pollution, something that is a growing concern in drilling hot spots such as Garfield County.Over time Colborn focused her work on endocrine disruption, studying how toxic compounds interfere with hormones that control development in people and wildlife. She co-authored a 1996 book on the subject, “Our Stolen Future,” which drew comparisons to Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 environmental book, “Silent Spring.”Fluid dynamicsOver the years, Colborn maintained a part-time home in Paonia. She began living there full-time in 2002 while recovering from a broken back. Around the same time, Gunnison Energy Corp. began talking about drilling on the nearby Grand Mesa. Colborn soon became concerned about what kinds of impacts drilling-related fluids might have on groundwater quality.Colborn voiced concerns with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management about the potential health dangers of substances injected underground to fracture wells and boost gas flow. That led to her being contacted by Laura Amos, who lived in the Silt area at the time and was diagnosed with a rare adrenal tumor she believed was caused by a solvent in natural gas that had gotten into her drinking water.Outright links between substances and people’s specific health problems can be hard to prove. But Colborn began hearing from others with concerns about health issues they feared were related to drilling. So she and an assistant began creating a spreadsheet of chemicals used in drilling and the patterns of their potential ill effects, which can include cancer, respiratory problems, and skin and sensory organ irritation.”That began the trouble that we’re in today,” joked Colborn, who heads The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a Paonia nonprofit.Colborn has faced some criticism from the energy industry for her work, but for her, criticism is nothing new. In the past, she has been accused of using junk science in her “Our Stolen Future” book, and been assailed by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals for advocating chemical testing on animals.Gunnison Energy representative Kathy Welt, who recently attended a public presentation by Colborn, said Colborn is an expert in areas such as toxicology, but doesn’t understand drilling.”I was just pretty upset with the whole tone of her presentation, that being to demonize the industry,” she said.Welt said drilling fluids are used in deeper geological formations and don’t mix with domestic well water. She said some people are extra-sensitive to changes in environment, such as gas development. But many chemicals similar to those used in drilling are contained in soaps, cleaning compounds, petroleum-based substances and other products found in homes, where people are more exposed to them, Welt said.”She’s painting us like we’re using some odd, mystery chemicals that nobody else uses,” Welt said.Colborn said she’s a scientific generalist who is able to see the big picture. She believes that picture isn’t going to change unless change begins at the grass roots, through groups such as the GVCA.”We can’t leave it up to the government – not when they’re controlled by corporations, which they are,” she said.She believes the power of grassroots action was demonstrated this year when the state legislature passed measures designed to better look out for the interests of people living where oil and gas development occurs.Colborn finds her organization’s work to be rewarding, especially for someone of her age.”We work hard but we enjoy what we’re doing and we feel like we’re making a change,” she said.Contact Dennis Webb: 384-9119dwebb@postindependent.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO


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