Ryan Summerlin November 30, 2006
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – Elizabeth “Chris” Mobaldi sits on a couch in her home, explaining why she and her husband packed up and left “their little piece of heaven” in western Colorado.”I was dying and I thought it was me hout,” Chris Mobaldi says in a halting, strangely accented voice. Steve Mobaldi jumps in to translate for his wife: “She was imagining that the house was killing her.”Chris Mobaldi is 59, but looks at least 70. In the last decade, she has had two tumors removed from her pituitary gland and endured excruciating pain. The once lively blonde is rail-thin and frail and holds her hands out for balance when she walks.The Mobaldis believe she suffers from foreign accent syndrome, a rare malady that can result from a stroke or brain injury, though she hasn’t been officially diagnosed with it. The Mobaldis believe her neurological system was damaged by drinking water that may have been contaminated by drilling fluids from wells around their former home about 60 miles to the east in Rifle.State regulators say tests on the couple’s well water found no evidence of contamination. The Mobaldis are convinced that something happened, and they are suing several companies that worked on three wells near their home.Other residents near the epicenter of the Rockies’ energy boom are starting to worry about their health, too, and who, exactly, is looking out for them. The federal government leaves much of the regulation up to state officials – and in Colorado, some residents fear there isn’t nearly enough oversight to keep them safe.”We’re collateral damage out here,” said Bill Solinger, whose family has had respiratory problems, headaches and fatigue since gas drilling exploded in the Rifle area.
Most of the regulation of Colorado’s oil and gas industry falls to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a state agency charged with promoting energy development. The commission has agreements with the state health department to enforce clean-water and hazardous-waste laws, though it has no health experts on staff.The Oil and Gas Accountability Project in Durango and other groups recently asked the commission and the health department to require detailed disclosure of all chemicals used in oil and gas production, and to require that the effects of the chemicals be monitored.The health department said it doesn’t have “the resources, capabilities or authority” to demand the information. The commission, meanwhile, said it believes it has the authority but “is not aware of a need for those requirements.”Yet complaints – from foul odors to bloody noses to fatigue and pain – are increasing in areas around gas wells in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama and Alberta, Canada, said Lisa Sumi, research director for the accountability project.”There are little clusters of people getting sick,” Sumi said.The federal government has exempted oil and gas exploration and production from some clean-water and hazardous-waste laws. Among the exemptions is hydraulic fracturing, which injects water, sand and chemicals underground to break down barriers and help release oil or gas for extraction.Wes Wilson, an engineer in the Denver office of the Environmental Protection Agency, has publicly disputed a study by the agency that said hydraulic fracturing in coalbed methane gas wells doesn’t endanger drinking water. He contends there is a distinct lack of oversight by the government on potential health issues involving oil and gas.
“Congress gave us broad enough authority to investigate public health concerns. The fact that we’re not is appalling,” said Wilson, with EPA for 34 years.Ken Wonstolen, general counsel for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association trade group, said federal law gives the public access to information about chemicals the industry uses. He said industry supports monitoring and analysis of the chemicals, but added that he’s not aware of oil and gas workers experiencing the problems described by area residents.Bruce Baizel, staff attorney for the accountability project, said disclosure is required only when large volumes are involved, not individual wells, and companies often claim the information is proprietary.Brian Macke, the oil and gas commission director, noted that the state fined EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) $371,200 in 2004 after gas leaked into a creek south of Silt and was traced to one of the company’s wells. Some of the money is funding a two-year study of whether gas operations are causing health problems.”We have a very extensive program for regulating oil and gas,” Macke said. “We’ve very much expanded our requirements for protecting public health, safety and welfare.”In July, the commission added 11 new positions, six of which will work directly in the field as inspectors.”For any state agency to receive help with this many more people is a real demonstration of the recognition by everybody that business is booming,” Macke said.The agency’s policy is to respond within 24 hours to health complaints, Macke said.
In the Mobaldis’ case, he said, staff members talked to the couple and have sampled their well several times since 1997. They have never found evidence of chemicals or gas.Air quality monitoring by Garfield County, where the Mobaldis used to live, hasn’t turned up toxins at hazardous levels. Jim Rada, head of the county’s environmental health program, said spills or high winds can result in periodic spikes, but so far, readings have been well below levels considered dangerous.Still, Rada said he doesn’t dismiss the health complaints. He said he is frustrated medical experts can’t provide more definitive answers.”I don’t think there’s been enough research done to show or prove that chronic exposure or sporadic exposure to low levels of those compounds doesn’t cause illness. We don’t have that information,” Rada said.An official with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the explosive energy development is taxing staff.”We’re all just trying to get a grip on the sheer number of new facilities out there and the impacts,” said Mike Silverstein, manager of planning and policy for the agency’s air pollution control division, which has proposed new statewide pollution standards for the industry.In the past, well sites likely didn’t get the attention they deserved because they were viewed as minor sources of potential pollution, Silverstein said.”But now, there are so many of them,” he said.
The Bureau of Land Management expects more than 10,000 new wells to be drilled in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin alone in the next 20 years.Karen and Tim Trulove weren’t alarmed when an occasional well was punched in the rolling hills around their 40-acre plot near Silt. But the wells have gotten closer, with one now only 200 yards from their house.”The noise, the dust, the bright lights in our windows all night long – we lived with that for over three years,” Karen Trulove said.Two years ago, Trulove said, she began getting headaches, nausea, fatigue and dizziness. Last spring, she said, she let her dog out and was hit by “this blast of fumes” from the well behind their house. The next day she was sick.The Truloves have bought land 30 miles away and plan to move soon from the house they designed and built.”My life is just over compared to what it used to be,” said Trulove, 51, who used to work in real estate, ran her own framing shop and rode the horses she and her husband raise. “The people who are doing this, the drillers, the companies, are above the law when it comes to drilling for natural gas.”The Mobaldis are frustrated, too. Steve Mobaldi said doctors have blamed everything from menopause to psychiatric problems for his wife’s illnesses while a few have looked seriously at environmental causes.”The health department’s turning their backs and closing their eyes and saying, ‘We don’t know anything about it,”‘ he said. “It’s insane.”The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.