An answer to the ills
November 30, 2006
DENVER – After her work on federal advisory boards and with environmental groups, Colorado native Theo Colborn was looking forward to returning to the small-town pace of Paonia.But the record energy development occurring about 90 miles north of Colborn’s hometown in western Colorado scuttled any plans she had of slowing down. She and other researchers at the Paonia-based, nonprofit Endocrine Disruption Exchange are poring over scientific journals and scrambling to identify the chemicals used by energy companies to determine if there’s a link between natural gas operations and area residents’ health complaints.Energy industry officials say they are closely regulated and that much of the information about the chemicals they use is public by law. They also say some of the work they do is so far below the surface it’s unlikely it could affect people, and they question why energy workers aren’t reporting the same problems.Colborn, a senior fellow at the World Wildlife Fund, has studied the effects of man-made chemicals on the development of humans and wildlife. She co-wrote the 1996 book, “Our Stolen Future: How We are Threatening our Fertility, Intelligence and Survival.”Now, she’s focused on the oil and gas industry. Colborn said using industry Material Safety Data Sheets, kept at work sites, and information from industry insiders, she and her fellow researchers have identified nearly 220 chemicals used in energy development, some of which she said are known to cause respiratory and neurological problems and gastrointestinal and liver damage.”It says on the [Material Safety Data Sheets] you should wear a respirator and goggles” around the chemicals, Colborn said. “And people are living near these sites.”Colborn believes the numerous wastewater pits dotting the rolling hills in Garfield County, heart of northwestern Colorado’s energy boom, are a health hazard. But she acknowledges proving that could be difficult.One of the problems is that many of the chemicals haven’t been thoroughly tested and no health standards have been established for them, Colborn said.”And they’ve not been looked at for long-term health effects,” she added.Colborn said another challenge is companies frequently won’t reveal their recipe for hydraulic fracturing, which injects water, sand and chemicals underground to break down barriers and help release oil or gas for extraction.Federal laws give the public access to information about hazardous chemicals used by companies, said Ken Wonstolen, general counsel for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association trade group. He said the public can also lobby agencies for tougher rules.Bruce Baizel, staff attorney for the Durango-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project, said his group has run into resistance in getting information about some chemicals. The disclosure requirements apply to larger volumes, which leaves out individual well sites, Baizel said.The state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which has primary oversight of the industry in Colorado, doesn’t require companies to detail the materials they use, said its director, Brian Macke. But he said if the agency got a complaint about alleged contamination, it would insist on knowing what was in the fluids.Colborn said she believes the warning signs are sufficient to make regulators more proactive. She said she believes chemicals used in drilling and processing likely caused a rare adrenal gland tumor in Laura Amos, who publicly accused Encana Oil & Gas (USA) of contaminating her water well near Silt.”You can’t say that’s what did it, but it’s certainly raising red flags,” Colborn said.The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission fined Encana $99,400 because gas was found in the well water. EnCana disputed the commission’s finding, but didn’t fight it. The company bought Amos’ property earlier this year for an undisclosed amount.Encana spokesman Doug Hock said the company responds to complaints about well water and often finds that the real culprit is the poor quality of the wells and groundwater. He said Encana is confident that hydraulic fracturing, or “frac’ing” (fracking), isn’t contaminating wells.”The reason is the depth at which we go and the fact that you have a huge amount of rock wall thousands of feet thick between where we’re doing the frac’ing and the aquifer where there would be water,” Hock said.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.