Experts: Ozone pollution not monitored, understood well enough
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — One critic of the oil and gas industry recently told an audience that while most violations of the state and federal governments’ safety limits for ground-level ozone are on the Front Range, at least one has been detected near the remote town of Rangely in the northwest corner of the state.
And another speaker warned that the spread of harmful chemical emissions could be greater than reported by industry and state government, and that the health complaints of some citizens on the Western Slope “could very well be real” despite doubts voiced in the industry’s responses to such warnings.
According to Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, where Denver and the Front Range have smog from cars and a host of other industrial sources for increased ozone pollution, the only possible reason for an ozone violation around Rangeley is that it is at the center of active drilling for oil and natural gas.
“That is the primary source of air emissions [in Rangely], oil and gas.” he told his audience of 40 or so people.
Ozone, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is a known cause of negative health effects in humans, which can include everything from coughing fits and respiratory malfunction and, in rare instances, death.
Nichols, along with several other experts, was speaking to a forum at the Glenwood Springs Community Center, which brought together a relatively small number of industry critics and “fractivists,” or activists opposed to the natural-gas extraction techniques known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
Although Garfield County’s chief air quality specialist, Environmental Health Manager Paul Reaser, was invited, organizer Leslie Robinson said he told her he would be unable to attend.
The county’s oil and gas liaison, Kirby Wynn, was in attendance, but did not speak, and no representatives of the oil and gas industry made comments as part of the event.
Nichols showed a PowerPoint presentation that included the claim that, in Garfield County, the oil and gas industry accounts for 91 percent of releases of what are known as Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, some of which are known to cause ill health effects.
The main source of VOC emissions, Nichols said, is not fracking, which is a technique of forcing water, sand and chemicals into wells bored deep into ground, in order to break up deeply buried rock formations and make it easier for oil and gas deposits to come to the surface.
Instead, Nichols said, the main sources of VOC emissions are storage tanks (71 percent), leaks (33 percent) and pneumatic devices (5 percent).
And it is the VOCs, combined with sunlight and heat, that produce ground-level ozone, which Nichols characterized as a poisonous gas that is regulated strictly by the state and federal government.
He said the early 2013 detection of high ozone levels in the Rangely area were believed to be related to temperature inversion events in the area, which he said resulted in ground-level ozone levels that were 40 percent higher than the maximum safe level.
The state Air Quality Control Commission is working to strengthen its regulations governing ozone and other pollutants, but mostly for applications on the Front Range, where most of the state’s population is.
“If it’s good enough for the Front Range,” he declared, “it should be good enough for the Western Slope.”
Another speaker was Teresa Coons, a member of the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC), researcher and adjunct faculty member at Mesa University.
She reported that the AQCC is preparing for a new round of “rule making” to more closely regulate air pollution, and cautioned her audience that she would be careful in her remarks so she would not “prejudice myself and have to recuse myself from those rule making hearings.”
The process, she said, has been under way for more than a year now, and the AQCC continues to gather information with a plan to hold formal rule-making hearings next year, perhaps in February.
Another speaker, endocrinologist and environmental health analyst Theo Colborn of Paonia, could not attend the forum for health reasons but called in to make remarks and answer questions.
Colborn is the author of “Our Stolen Future,” a 1996 book “about the health and environmental threats created by man-made chemical contaminants that interfere with hormones in humans and wildlife,” according to a forward by former Vice President Al Gore.
In her remarks, Colborn charged that no systematic air quality monitoring was done on the Western Slope prior to the decade-long boom in natural gas drilling that continues today, with a result that there was no “base line” of data by which to compare current air quality measurements.
In the meantime, she said, the industry has been drilling thousands of feet into the earth to reach trapped oil and gas deposits, fracking them, and bringing to the surface what she called “native volatile chemicals that under normal conditions would never come to the surface. Think of them as aliens from inner space.”
Such chemicals, she said, make up nearly 18 percent of the stream of raw natural gas, and emissions from these sources are inescapable by area residents and subject to inadequate government attention.
Grassroots efforts known as Bucket Brigades, which have been active in Garfield County, have led to a greater public awareness of the issue, including increasing understanding of the hazards of the BTEX chemicals — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene — which are among the VOCs commonly associated with oil and gas drilling.
But, Colborn said, there have been no government studies about endocrine disrupting chemicals, or on the prenatal exposure hazards represented by the industry’s activities, such as the “purposeful burning of the raw gas” through the procedure known as flaring, which is done to relieve pressure in the pipes linked to a well.
One example of the unexplored impacts, she said, is that ground-level ozone “slowly eats away at the tissue of the lungs,” a phenomenon that has not received much government attention in relation to the oil and gas industry.
She said the health effects from long-range exposure to this kind of activity, whether by breathing or having it cling to one’s skin, ranges from premature births to lung disease to bone disease, which appear to figure in symptoms reported by some neighbors to oil and gas rigs on the Western Slope.
“It is apparent that citizens’ complaints could very well be real,” Colborn concluded. “They are not hypochondriacs.”
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Imagine Glenwood and The City of Glenwood Springs is slated to host a virtual town hall at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 11.