This story was originally published on December 10, 2015, at High Country News.
Colorado has been something of a pioneer in terms of tracking health risks related to oil and gas production. In 2010, it was the first in the nation to perform a detailed study known as a “health impact assessment” on proposed natural gas development.
Now, it’s the first state to have a health response program for oil and gas operations. Fracking and drilling can release a range of pollutants that harm human health – for example, respiratory problems can result from dust and diesel exhaust, cardiac and pulmonary harm from ground-level ozone, and cancer and nerve damage from volatile organic compounds such as benzene.
Definitive proof of links between oil and gas production and health problems, though, is often elusive. Exactly how development can impact human health, and to what degree, is still not fully known. Toward that end, Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment has set up an “Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program” to address citizens’ health concerns and improve the information available about health risks. The department has a website where residents can fill out a form to report symptoms they think may be related to oil and gas development (or they can call 303-389-1687). The site also provides a clearinghouse of information on ozone, emissions, fracking, water and air quality, and relevant regulations.
A health professional or doctor will be available to talk with citizens, says Daniel Vigil, the physician heading up the program, and can record information and map cases to look for patterns. That staffer won’t be able to diagnose a complaint but can talk with a patient’s primary doctor, and help them find specialists for further evaluation. If there seem to be acute, immediate impacts on health, staffers will work with state inspectors, who can then visit the site, take samples, and identify any problems to be addressed. “Our role is a niche,” says Vigil, “working with a lot of other individuals to put together information.”
Program staff will also write “unbiased” reviews of existing research on health impacts associated with oil and gas production, and analyze data for trends, according to Vigil. The program began on Oct. 15 and so far has received 22 inquiries, he says, including one person who wanted to know how fracking operations near her home might affect her asthma, and another who’d been suffering extensive symptoms for several years that he attributed to nearby oil and gas operations. By mid-December, the program will have three full-time staffers, including a Ph.D. toxicologist and an environmental health expert.
The health information program was one of nine measures recommended by the state’s oil and gas task force, which Gov. John Hickenlooper created in 2014 to study conflicts between fossil fuel development and residents. The task force didn’t address residents’ biggest concern – how near to homes drilling operations can take place. But it did recommend other health-related measures, such as a mobile air-monitoring program and a risk assessment, which would provide region-specific data to help people understand the likelihood of harm from exposure to a particular chemical.
This state-wide effort is a reflection of concerns that began surfacing much earlier as natural gas development spread. Five years ago in Garfield County, on the state’s Western Slope, residents of Battlement Mesa faced a plan for 200 natural gas wells in their midst. The community had jurisdiction over the project, and asked for a study of how it might affect their health.
County commissioners initially supported the study, which was the first-ever health impact assessment for oil and gas development in the U.S., but abruptly terminated it in 2011 after the second draft was completed. The report’s executive summary stated, “The key findings of our study are that (the) health of the Battlement Mesa residents will most likely be affected by chemical exposures, accidents or emergencies resulting from industry operations and stress-related community changes.”
Although the process got bogged down in politics and the natural gas proposal was later abandoned, Battlement Mesa provides some useful lessons, says Jeffrey Jacquet, assistant professor of Sociology and Rural Studies at South Dakota State University. Last year, he published a case study of Battlement Mesa for Headwaters Economics, concluding that “it is clear that a framework for performing health impact assessments amid the challenges of operating in the context of oil and natural gas development must be developed.” That community’s experience, he says, helped spark national conversation about how oil and gas operations might affect public health.
Understanding and evaluating those impacts is complex, Jacquet notes, because oil and gas sites are dispersed and many other environmental, social, physical and psychological factors can contribute to a person’s perception of their health. But Colorado’s program, he says, is “far and away better than what any other state is doing on this issue. There’s so much more that could be done, but hopefully this program will eventually answer a lot of questions that people have on health impacts.”
Citizens involved in the earlier Garfield County assessment say it’s about time the state took concerns about energy development’s potential effect on health more seriously. Leslie Robinson, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance in Garfield County, indicated in the Grand Junction Sentinel that the hotline represents “a new direction for the agency,” which she characterized as seeming “to work against citizens” pushing for the Battlement Mesa study. “When this came up in the task force,” Robinson was quoted as saying, “it was like, why did it take six years to get our point across that we need more health studies done, those that have to live next to oil and gas development?”