Effects of gas wells on health unknown

Department of Public Health and Environment official says not enough data exist

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— In the face of booming natural-gas production across the state, Colorado’s public health officials remain unsure about the effects of gas and oil development on the health of nearby residents.

Data are few and far between when it comes to how Coloradans are affected by emissions from well pads and production facilities, said Kent Kuster, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s oil and gas liaison. Kuster spoke to a sparse crowd Thursday night at an outreach and information event hosted by the state health department and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“It’s going to take a number of years to understand what’s occurring at the well sites,” Kuster said. “There is no data that exists on the local, state or federal level to draw any definitive conclusions about public-health impacts from oil and gas development.”

Such data could be used to determine how far away a drill site or compressor station needs to be from someone’s home, Kuster said.

It is a “complicated science” to create those regulations because topography, weather patterns and population characteristics all play a role in how emissions affect residents, he said. And with a current lack of data, officials are sometimes forced to estimate safe exposure levels because they don’t know toxicity of some chemicals used in the drilling and production processes, Kuster said.

It’s also hard for the health department to address residents’ complaints about odors or other health effects they suspect might come from gas and oil development.

“We don’t have answers yet to try and help address those,” he said.

The lack of information also puts the local San Juan Basin Health Department in an awkward position, said Joe Theine, the organization’s director. The health effects of emissions from gas and oil development are just one example of the many issues that require further study, he said.

Nationwide, several studies are aiming to provide a better understanding of how people living close to wells across the nation are affected by well pads and production facilities. Recent studies in Utah and Wyoming showed high levels of ozone near gas and oil fields, and in 2011, Garfield County conducted a Health Effects Assessment study about natural gas and oil development.

One draft report of the study, conducted by the University of Colorado School of Public Health, indicated that residents who live within a half-mile of a well pad are more likely to experience health effects than residents farther away. The study never was completed after it generated hundreds of comments and criticisms for and against the gas and oil industry.

Another study of the effects of gas and oil development in Garfield County is set to begin soon, Kuster said. The two-year study is funded mainly by industry operators, and no data will be released until it is compiled and peer reviewed.

While a worthy mission, the study would provide only a snapshot of gas and oil development in one place, which may not be much use to other counties with different geographies and population patterns, Kuster said. For example, gas and oil emissions mix with emissions from cars and other industries to produce results that are unique to each place.

More region-specific data are needed, but a lack of funding has prevented more studies from taking place, Kuster said.

Money also is a limiting factor in the state’s ability to set up more air-quality monitoring sites where gas and oil development is expanding, he said. A multipollutant monitoring site can cost more than $225,000 plus maintenance.

In talking about health effects of natural-gas and oil development, Kuster focused on air quality because it is one of the few areas where the health department can have a “real impact,” he said.

The department is limited to consultation in many areas of gas and oil development, and it doesn’t have any authority on topics such as exploration and production waste or groundwater protection.

The Oil and Gas Commission has its own long list of regulations for gas and oil producers that range from stormwater management to soil conservation, said Stuart Ellsworth, the commission’s engineering manager.

The commission does public outreach sessions regularly throughout the state, Ellsworth said.

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