RIFLE, Colo. - A health impact assessment, or HIA, intended to gauge oil and gas drilling impacts at Battlement Mesa has been terminated before it could be finalized, following a decision taken Monday by the Garfield County commissioners.
The assessment study had to be ended, commissioners said, to keep the study from becoming "a never-ending document" encumbered by a continuing stream of conflicting comments and objections over oil and gas drilling.
The commissioners voted unanimously not to extend a contract with the Colorado School of Public Health, which was hired last year to conduct the health assessment and to design a longer-term environmental health monitoring study, or EHMS.
The fate of the longer-term monitoring study has yet to be decided, according to Garfield County environmental health director Jim Rada.
Rada said some aspects of the longer-term study design, which is under a separate contract with the county, were begun last year.
Rada expects to meet with commissioners in the near future to discuss whether to keep the design process in motion or end it.
The decision to end the HIA contract, which expired on April 27 before the final report could be finished and released, did not please some of the members of the public present.
Leslie Robinson of Rifle is an activist with the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, which was active in the campaign to have the health assessment conducted in the first place.
"I think it's ridiculous that they leave it unfinished," said Robinson, in the wake of the commissioners' vote. "And it's pressure from the industry that [convinced the county to] leave it unfinished."
Garland White, a Battlement Mesa resident, told commissioners, "I was hoping this would be an opportunity for the commission to continue their leadership" in terms of investigating possible negative health effects on those living near gas and oil drilling rigs.
Both the assessment and the long-term monitoring study were launched in response to plans by Antero Resources, a natural gas drilling company, to drill up to 200 wells from nine well pads within the Battlement Mesa residential area, a community of 5,000 near Parachute.
Numerous people at the meeting asked the commissioners not to end the health study. It has cost the county some $250,000 to date and contains recommendations for dealing with what the study predicted would be negative health impacts from gas drilling in the neighborhood.
"Because this is a draft stage, we feel the HIA is not completed," Robinson testified. "It really needs to be a finished document."
Antero Resources, on the other hand, favored bring the study to a close.
The company, said attorney Jennifer Beaver of Denver, "supports not spending any more money on the HIA."
She said Antero is worried that the health assessment "may be used as a model" for communities in other areas faced with gas drilling plans, or civil litigation.
Antero is facing at least one lawsuit, from a family that formerly lived on Silt Mesa near a gas drilling rig operating for Antero, over an array of alleged impacts to the family's health and welfare.
"The HIA is based on largely exaggerated and unfounded perceptions," Beaver said, and she urged the commissioners to disavow the health assessment's findings.
"I believe I've just heard Antero urge you to accept that you've just wasted $250,000," countered Battlement Mesa resident Dick Buchan, noting that the industry has long relied on arguments that there is a lack of scientific proof that gas drilling is harmful.
"The tobacco industry used that argument for decades," before scientists concluded that smoking tobacco causes cancer, Buchan argued.
"No one says it's wasted," Commissioner John Martin assured citizens. He said the findings and recommendations would not be placed on a shelf and forgotten, but would be used "to benefit the community" as the county reviews Antero's plans to drill in Battlement Mesa.
The vote to end the HIA contract means that the study, encompassing hundreds of comments from the industry, state health regulators and the public, will never formally be finalized, although it is available to the public on the county's website.
In addition, the commissioners' vote scuttles part of the original contract that called for a series of public meetings to be conducted by the School of Public Health to explain the process, findings and recommendations contained within the health assessment.
Frank Smith, organizing director of the Western Colorado Congress citizen organization, said the group will still consider finding a way to use the health assessment findings and recommendations to educate the public about the issues involved.
"The public has a right, and a growing thirst to know that there are health impacts from oil and gas development," Smith said.