Garfield County: Energy mitigation money valid for health study

John Colson
Post Independent staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Some residents of Battlement Mesa are worried about the health effects of living cheek-by-jowl with up to 200 natural gas wells.

And now they have the Garfield County government agreeing it could be a valid use of its energy-mitigation funds to look into their concerns.

But a full study of the current health status of those residents – as well as of the baseline air quality conditions now existing on Battlement Mesa and other related issues – may not be possible before state and local officials must decide about whether gas drilling should be allowed in the neighborhood.

Those were the essential conclusions that came out of a special work session before the board of county commissioners on Dec. 16. No decisions are made at work sessions.

“I think we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Dave Devanney, a member of the Battlement Concerned Citizens group that is seeking the health study and would like to see the drilling delayed until the study can be completed.

In particular, Devanney said, he was “encouraged” that the BOCC signaled its willingness to use some of its oil and gas mitigation fund to pay for the study.

“Why wait for a grant?” asked Commissioner John Martin, referring to the idea of applying for grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts for money to conduct the studies. Martin noted that the grant process can be a long and, in many instances, fruitless effort if the grant application is denied.

Martin and Commissioner Tresi Houpt agreed that it would be an appropriate use of the mitigation fund, which derives from energy-company payments to the state. The fund is expected to hold more than $17 million at the end of this year and to rise above the $20-million mark by the end of 2010, according to the county’s 2010 budget.

Members of the BCC in October presented the county with petitions bearing more than 400 signatures of Battlement Mesa residents, whose total number is around 5,000.

The unincorporated community was begun in the 1980s as housing for workers in the oil shale industry, but now is largely a retirement village. The population, according to the BCC, includes numerous residents suffering from compromised immune systems and an assisted living center housing several people permanently on oxygen.

Antero Resources is planning to drill up to 200 natural gas wells, operating from 10 well pads, within the boundaries of the community, “with some rigs within 400 feet of homes,” noted a letter from the BCC to the commissioners.

“Because of the unknown chemical compositions used in drilling practices, oil and gas exploration with Battlement Mesa could expose a large number of vulnerable people to potentially long-term adverse health and environmental impacts – making sick people sicker,” stated the letter.

So, the group is requesting that a “health impact assessment” be conducted “before a special use permit is approved to any company drilling within the Battlement Mesa PUD [planned unit development].”

An HIA, according to a memo from county environmental health director Jim Rada, is a specific type of study conducted by the nonprofit foundations. Rada said he also has talked with the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health, which has indicated some interest in taking part in a study.

Rada said the county already is gathering air quality data from Parachute and Morrisania Mesa, but not specifically on Battlement Mesa, and that the monitors could be shifted around.

Rada and others will continue to work on gathering information and contacting state and federal agencies and organizations, and the entire matter will be discussed again early in 2010.

The proceedings took on added urgency when county planning director Fred Jarman said the Antero applications for drilling permits, and for a required county special use permit, are expected early next year, as well.

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