Final health impact study won’t be out for 4 months |

Final health impact study won’t be out for 4 months

John Colson
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

It will be four months before local officials will learn the final outcome of a controversial health impact assessment (HIA) for the Battlement Mesa community.

That is the schedule approved by the Garfield County commissioners on Monday, followed by a relatively intense discussion of how to pay for the additional work to finish the HIA.

The HIA, basically a review of existing data, was conducted to establish a base line of health information concerning residents of Battlement Mesa, where the Antero Resources gas drilling company has plans to drill up to 200 gas wells within the boundaries of the community.

But the HIA hit a snag recently when a draft of its conclusions drew more than 400 comments, many of them highly critical of the study, and the Board of County Commissioners decided more work was needed before a final HIA can be released.

The money to pay for the initial HIA, roughly $158,000, was to come from the county’s public health budget. But payment for the additional work to get to the final report, which is expected to cost up to $100,000, is to be paid out of the county’s “oil and gas mitigation fund,” based on a suggestion from Commissioner John Martin.

That fund was created in 2006 as a way to isolate money in a separate, difficult to use account so that it could only be spent to soften the effects of the gas drilling boom.

Specifically, according to a resolution creating the fund, it was meant “to mitigate adverse property, social and environmental impacts.”

The money in the fund comes largely from state and federal lease payments, mineral severance taxes, royalties and other payments from the oil and gas industry. Currently the fund contains approximately $18 million, and is expected to hold $20 million by the end of 2010 and $23 million by the end of 2011.

Deputy county attorney Carolyn Dahlgren cautioned the commissioners that the use of the mitigation fund to pay for the added work on the HIA would require that the 2006 enabling resolution be amended to specifically allow the payment for the health study.

Dahlgren also recommended that the commissioners might want to remove a phrase in the 2006 resolution that requires the commissioners to “make a finding” that the county’s regular fiscal resources are insufficient to cover the costs being discussed.

That “finding” was meant to allow the mitigation fund to be used.

Commissioner Martin balked at Dahlgren’s second suggestion, though, maintaining that the mitigation fund, “which was my brainchild … was set up, I believe, for this purpose.”

He argued strenuously that the 2006 resolution, in its reference to “environmental impacts,” covered such things as the HIA.

He worried that changing the language of the resolution would interfere with safeguards meant to prohibit the fund’s reserves from being spent in inappropriate ways.

“It opens up too many possibilities to siphon money off from the fund,” Martin declared.

His concerns were not felt by his fellow commissioners, however.

“I do not think boards in the future are going to use these funds in a flippant way,” said commissioner Mike Samson.

By a vote of 2-1, with Martin dissenting, the commissioners directed the legal department to write up a resolution adding health assessments to the list of allowable expenditures of mitigation funds.

In addition, said Dahlgren, she was directed to delete the phrase in the 2006 resolution that requires the commissioners to, as she put it, “make a finding” that the county’s normal funding sources are inadequate “to properly address the actual impacts of oil and gas related activities,” enabling the use of mitigation funds.

Among the tasks of the consultants working on the HIA, the School of Public Health of the University of Colorado-Denver, are a series of meetings with “stakeholders” in the process, including some who made the sharpest critical comments on the draft HIA.

Those stakeholders, according to a memo from environmental health director Jim Rada, include Antero Resources, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Battlement Concerned Citizens, and the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

The second draft of the HIA, according to the county’s schedule, is to be ready by the end of February and be open to further public comment until the end of March.

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