Oil and gas health program up and running | PostIndependent.com

Oil and gas health program up and running

Ryan Hoffman
In this June 2016 file photo, a drilling rig rises behind sound barriers in Battlement Mesa during phase one of Ursa's natural gas drilling operations.
Post Independent file

RIFLE — Roughly a month and a half since its rollout, a state-run program created to field and respond to health concerns related to oil and gas operations is slowly starting to take shape.

As of Thursday evening, the new Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program had fielded 20 complaints, according to Dr. Daniel Vigil, who is heading the program within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).

The program’s website http://www.oghir.dphe.state.co.us/ and help line — 303-389-1687 — went public Oct. 15, in what was described as a soft launch.

On the website, visitors can file a health concern and access data from CDPHE, as well as external information that will be compiled in a clearinghouse. Additionally, the program’s staff will write “unbiased” reviews of existing research on the health impacts related to oil and gas development, said Vigil, who was in Rifle on Thursday for several meetings related to the oil and gas industry.

In addition to the website, a mobile air monitoring program is currently being designed. With completion expected in the spring, the air monitoring station will deploy to areas based on the level of potential health impact, history of oil and gas operations in the area and the number of health related complaints.

The health response program — which Vigil said is the first of its kind in the country — was one of nine approved recommendations from a task force created by Gov. John Hickenlooper as part of a compromise to avoid multiple oil and gas-related ballot issues in 2014.

The health-related recommendation, which received unanimous approval from the task force, was in response to many citizen concerns about the possible health effects related to oil and gas emissions.

“The task force believes citizens deserve and need accurate, credible, peer-reviewed scientific information to help them evaluate risk,” the recommendation stated.

Some of those concerns were voiced Thursday evening at the monthly Garfield County Energy Advisory Board meeting.

For Stella Ramos, who lives near Spring Creek in the Parachute area, oil and gas operations have become an unwanted part of life. Odor, noise and dust from vehicle traffic are regular nuisances, Ramos said, and even more troubling are the unknown health impacts.

After the issues started in 2004, Ramos’ husband handled reporting oil and gas issues. He died in September from throat cancer, three months after he was diagnosed with the disease, and Ramos said she suspects breathing air in an area with oil and gas development could have contributed to his rapid decline in health.

The real problem, she added, is the lack of knowledge regarding the health impacts related to the industry. She questioned how a regular physician would be able to accurately diagnose a problem without the knowledge needed to track it back to oil and gas operations.

And the new program does not alleviate her concerns, Ramos said.

Vigil, who heard from several concerned residents Thursday evening, said he understands the worry and in some cases frustration. The responses Thursday were at times more “animated and visceral” than others so far, “but there are concerned and upset people around the state,” Vigil said.

While there has been research into specific issues, there is little to no research looking at the issue in its entirety, Vigil said. The new program aims to provide a more complete look in the future.

Speaking specifically to Ramos’ concern, Vigil said doctors are capable of diagnosing ailments and can recommend a specialist for further evaluation. If a person uses the help line or website, the program could even help with finding a specialist.

However, the program initially will collect data, including health records if access is given by the person filing the concern. That information will be mapped and used to establish a baseline for data. In cases where there is believed to be an immediate health impact, Vigil said program officials will coordinate with other agencies, such as the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, to respond to the issue.

Relationships are already established so that if a complaint is better suited for a different agency it can forward the information to the appropriate organization.

At this point, it is unknown how many people might use the program, but staffing could be a limitation. Other than Vigil, there is one other full-time staff member. A third is expected to start by the middle of the month — budgetary restrictions only allow for three full-time employees at the moment.

Adding to the uncertainty is the lack of a model program elsewhere in the country, and the fact that the program is dependent on residents calling or submitting a concern online.

“The more input we get from citizens and the county, the better we can make this program work,” Vigil said, while echoing the directive from the governor’s task force.

Two other task force recommendations, specifically dealing with the siting of large facilities and local government involvement, are currently in the COGCC rule-making process. After two full days of public hearing in mid November, the process was continued until Monday. The University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs is hosting that meeting.

Speaking Thursday at the quarterly Northwest Colorado Oil and Gas Forum, COGCC Deputy Director David Kuhlmann anticipated Monday’s meeting would likely go long and that the rule-making likely would not conclude Monday. If that is the case, a fourth and possibly final meeting on the matter could occur Jan. 25.

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