Health care experts address oil, gas concerns at Greeley meeting of Colorado task force
Answers to the tough questions of how oil and gas drilling is affecting Coloradans’ health haven’t come easily in recent years, and there wasn’t much more clarity offered for members of the Colorado Oil and Gas task force on Thursday.
It was as simple as the goods on the table that sat before the 21-member task force assembled at the 4H Building at Island Grove Regional Park.
Members giggled a little as Dr. Larry Wolk, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, presented them with products he’d picked up at local stores: a bottle of Coke, a bottle of beer, a pack of cigarettes, a bag of Skittles, a quart of motor oil, some marijuana and a cup of caffeinated coffee.
“Which is really the worst for your health?” he asked. “Which would be worse if you ate it? Or would it be worse if we aerosoled it and breathed it? Which would be worse if you were pregnant, a child, or elderly … or just had one Skittle versus 12 (bottles of Coke)? Is it better to smoke the marijuana or eat it?
“It’s about exposure. … We want it to be simple, and we want a simple answer to the question. This is a complicated question.”
Wolk was one of four health care experts presenting before the task force in the group’s fifth meeting to determine recommendations to solve resident concerns of increased urban drilling. About 200 people attended Thursday’s meetings in Greeley.
Residents have fears that close proximity to oil and gas drilling and storage is dangerous to their health. Studies in recent years suggest increased risk in closer proximity to facilities, but nothing definitive. It’s dependent on topography, temperature, wind direction, genetics, and length of exposure, among others.
While the four collectively seemed to agree that more study is needed to discover solid health effects, none said they had enough information to recommend to the task force a setback, or a minimum distance drilling should be from residential structures or schools.
“I don’t think we know quite enough for me to recommend a number,” said Gabrielle Petron, a researcher at the University of Colorado, and a contractor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who has been part of team conducting air studies along the Front Range for about seven years.
Oil and gas opponents throughout the state last year sought to increase the distance from oil and gas operations and residential structures to 2,000 feet — up from the current 500 feet in law today. The task force was formed as a compromise by Gov. John Hickenlooper, to avoid a public vote on the matter. The task force will take up that discussion in more detail today.
Their last meeting will be in February in Denver, when the group is expected to recommend legislation that will satisfy residents concerned with the increasing proximity of drilling to neighborhoods and schools.
Early discussions indicate the task force is considering increased setbacks, allowing more local government participation in early well permitting. But the task force also may discuss the potential of starting a state registry by which health officials can chart health effects of those near oil and gas sites; perhaps even heightened air quality standards for wells in a residential setting.
Petron said she would not feel comfortable with oil and gas operations in her neighborhood without continued monitoring, accountability and consequences.
“I feel comfortable living next to oil and gas operations that have been well-monitored and where there is a direct number you can call if you can smell something,” Petron said. But, she said, the potential of living next to a large number of storage tanks — in which she said 40 percent of the vapors are not captured — was concerning.
“Living next to a pad that could have a lot of those tanks would definitely be something I’d want monitored and have an accountability for whoever does monitor it,” she said.
One unanimous conclusion is that much more money will be needed for further study and monitoring. Today, many studies are based on dated information and don’t take into account new drilling methods, for example, or the state’s newly implemented restrictions on methane emissions.
Petron said she would be interested in doing more air quality sampling in a couple of years to see if those new emissions standards had an effect on the high amounts of volatile organic compounds that have seemed to concentrate over Weld County in high levels.
Wolk asked the group to consider recommending that the five temporary employees the agency was granted in previous years to monitor oil and gas emissions be made permanent. That would be an extra $950,000 a year in personnel and equipment funding.
He also asked the group to consider recommending purchasing and funding a mobile response testing unit, plus personnel to respond to specific complaints or areas of higher concentrations of complaints. That would run in the neighborhood of $325,000 per unit, plus $100,000 a year in personnel to run it.
Task force member Russ George, former Speaker of the Colorado House and former executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, said the panel reminded him that it’s important to get the facts before letting fears govern the conversation and outcome.
“I had forgotten how complex health science is,” George said. “We can’t jump to conclusions. We have to have the facts, and we have to do that with studies to get the data. It has to meet these very exacting standards you folks live by. A lot of times we forget that. Our own needs, expectations, worries, cause us to forget how difficult the truth can be sometimes.”
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