A lot of ‘questions out there’ about what’s in Garfield County’s air | AspenTimes.com

A lot of ‘questions out there’ about what’s in Garfield County’s air

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – In response to what appears to be growing community concern, the Garfield County commissioners agreed this week that it may be time to step up its efforts to deal with possible air pollution from the oil and gas industry.

Commissioner Tresi Houpt noted that “we still have a lot of unanswered questions out there” and called for the use of the county’s bulging oil and gas mitigation fund to boost the county environmental health department’s resources.

“At present,” according to Garfield County’s chief air-quality expert, “there is not a public health crisis in Garfield County,” as far as air pollution from the oil and gas industry is concerned.

But, said Paul Reaser, senior environmental health specialist for the county’s health department, “there are some health trends that need to continue to be monitored.”

Reaser, in a presentation to the Board of County Commissioners on Sept. 21, laid out what he termed the county’s “aggressive” and “extensive” efforts to determine exactly what pollutants are being added to the air breathed by county residents, where it comes from, and how to deal with it.

He was reporting on a two-year study that has involved monitoring of eight sites with “close proximity to homes and businesses” around the county, between June and August of 2008.

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While such common pollution indicators as particulates and dust in the air, ozone and other compounds have not violated state or federal standards, he said, his studies have detected Benzene and other “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs).

Reaser reported that Benzene, a known carcinogen that has been associated with oil and gas development, was not detected countywide at average concentrations greater than at “other sites across the U.S.”

But he found that “concentrations of Benzene … measured at the Parachute and Rifle sites did average higher than those reported across the U.S.

This might indicate that local sources for these compounds are higher in Garfield County than in a typical urban or rural environment.”

And, in a powerpoint presentation that accompanied the executive summary of the report, Reaser stated, “Oil and gas emissions are significant contributors to oxides of nitrogen (NOX) and volatile organic compounds.”

As part of his presentation, Reaser proposed numerous methods for controlling pollution from a variety of sources, including road and construction dust, emissions from drilling-rig engines and compressors, venting of natural gas from completed wells and “fugitive emissions” from other sources.

The health department’s air quality monitoring work, which has been a large part of Reaser’s job for the past two years, has been funded by a $107,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, awarded to the county in 2007. Reaser said the term of the grant expires in October.

Aside from his air-quality monitoring work, Reaser has produced a brochure, the “Citizens Guide on Air Quality Issues in Garfield County,” and has proposed a series of public outreach efforts to increase citizen awareness of the issues involved.

He also suggested the BOCC form an air quality advisory board, with a “broad based” membership that covers the spectrum from environmentalists to industry insiders, and that the county be certain to assign sufficient resources to its health department, so that compliance and enforcement efforts are effective and comprehensive.

“We need to keep moving forward,” declared commissioner Tresi Houpt after hearing Reaser’s presentation. “Fortunately, we have mitigation money that we have set aside for this purpose … I think we still have a lot of unanswered questions out there, a lot of work to be done.” Houpt was referring to more than $11 million recently received by Garfield County from the state. The money represents a portion of the mineral severance taxes and mineral lease fees paid to the state, which are doled out to counties affected by the oil and gas industry.

She suggested that an air quality advisory board could come up with a work program and a proposed budget for a stepped-up monitoring program, and added, “we will have money in the budget to be able to cover this type of program.

Commissioner John Martin, saying he agreed with the idea of a strong air quality monitoring program, said it must not be permitted to push the environmental health department over the two-percent growth limit set for all county departments for 2010.

But, Houpt responded, “This is different money,” arguing that energy impact funds should not be limited in the same way as locally generated tax receipts, and Martin seemed to concede the point.

Houpt noted that earlier in the meeting Teran Hughes, from the Divide Creek area south of Silt, had appealed to the BOCC for help in dealing with air-pollution concerns that he said were caused by nearby gas drilling operations.

Hughes said there are six gas wells within a half-mile of his home, and told the BOCC, “We’ve had to move out twice, because the smells are so bad … I’d appreciate you guys addressing that, and standing up for us.”

Houpt told Hughes, “I think your request is very timely,” mentioning Reaser’s presentation scheduled for later that day and directing the environmental health department to check on Hughes’ complaint.

Jim Rada, director of the environmental health department, said the department has been working with the Hughes family for some time, and confirmed that the Hughes home is surrounded by “pretty intense development activity” by the Bill Barrett Corp.

He said the company has been cooperative with the county, installing “combustors,” equipment designed to burn off smelly compounds released from the well, such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide.

“We work with the companies to do the best they can to minimize those emissions,” Rada said, noting that “oil and gas odors are a very tricky problem … there aren’t any standards for the VOCs that people are smelling.”

In general, Rada said, “I know that people are concerned about what they’re breathing, and whether that’s going to affect their health, [but] it’s really hard to point to one cause.”

The environmental health department will continue to refine its proposals and report back to the BOCC with more recommendations, possibly in December.

jcolson@postindependent.com

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