Locals wonder why state pulled back from air quality study
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Since state officials backed away from seeking a federal grant to study air quality in Battlement Mesa, some area residents are questioning the decision and wondering what it means for future air quality studies in the county.
Meanwhile, a gas industry spokesman is suggesting an alternate means of collecting air quality data for the area.
In August, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) pulled a grant application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking roughly $850,000 for air quality monitoring in the Battlement Mesa area.
Martha Rudolph, director of environmental programs for the state agency, said the grant application was pulled because the state, the county, the industry and others could not agree on how the study should be conducted.
Dave Devanney, a member of Battlement Concerned Citizens, said the citizen’s group is “disappointed that it doesn’t look like we’re going to get much help in protecting air quality.” He blamed the situation on “the political atmosphere” in Garfield County.
“It makes me wonder whether [state health experts] are not real excited about doing business in Garfield County,” said Devanney, who had hoped the grant for air quality monitoring would go forward.
Battlement Mesa, an unincorporated community of about 5,000 people, is waiting for Antero Resources, a company operating drilling rigs in Garfield County, to move ahead with plans drill up to 200 wells on nine well pads within the community’s boundaries.
The EPA-funded study was to provide information about changes to air quality and public health risks as gas drilling activity occurs. Garfield County was prepared to match $116,000 of the total study cost.
With the grant now scuttled, a trade association representative for the gas industry says drillers operating in the area are committed to exploring other options for determining the air quality effects of its activities.
“Our membership supports filling the data gaps identified in the application related to air quality,” said David Ludlam, director of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA). “We’re committed to working with Garfield County and the state to get there from here.”
Ludlam confirmed that he has begun preliminary work on one idea, involving a study by the Fort Collins-based Colorado State University (CSU) School of Atmospheric Studies.
This is a different academic group from the Colorado School of Public Health, which was expected to carry out the EPA-funded study.
The Colorado School of Public Health, associated with the University of Colorado, recently conducted a Health Impact Assessment for the Battlement Mesa area. The HIA, as it was known, was terminated by the Garfield Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) in May while it was still in draft form.
The commissioners said they were worried the HIA, which was in its second draft and seemed headed for a third, was becoming “a never-ending document” embroiled by conflicting comments and objections.
Critics of that decision say the gas industry pressured the county into cutting off funding for the HIA when its findings were deemed damaging to the industry’s interests.
A week after the HIA cancellation, the BOCC agreed to support the EPA grant application.
Ludlam conceded that among gas drillers in Garfield County, “there was an unspoken uncomfortability” with the School of Public Health approach, which he described as being “focused on interpreting data for its public health implications.”
Under the Western Slope COGA proposal, the CSU study team, or some other scientific entity if CSU is not selected, will be asked to “just collect the data,” Ludlam said.
Interpretation, he said, could come later.
Garfield County environmental health manager Jim Rada told the Post Independent via e-mail that the Western Slope COGA had offered to help the county government find a way to conduct air quality studies.
For some observers, that looked like too cozy a solution.
“I think it’s a little suspicious that COGA is now looking toward finding some way to pay for a study,” said former Garfield County commissioner Tresi Houpt.
“That would certainly not be an objective study,” she added.
“Like the HIA, the air quality study got mired in oil-and-gas politics, an arena not favorable to protecting citizens right now,” wrote Leslie Robinson, a member of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance.
Robinson also expressed doubts about the future of a hydrological study of the Mamm Creek area south of Silt and Rifle, aimed at answering questions about whether drilling activities might be contaminating groundwater.
“I predict continuous funding of the hydro study south of Silt will be axed from the county budget, as well,” she stated.
Another activist, Frank Smith of the Western Colorado Congress, said, “We’re just looking for public health officials to do their job. The public health aspects of oil and gas development need to be looked at. Public health is the main thing that industry is scared of.”
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