Garfield County study: no ‘health crisis’ |

Garfield County study: no ‘health crisis’

Phillip Yates
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

RIFLE, Colo. ” A two-year community health risk assessment of Garfield County residents found that there is not a “health crisis” because of rapid natural gas development in the county.

But an environmental risk assessment ” which was based on mathematical modeling of emissions from a single well ” found that people who are close to oil and gas operations may face higher health risks, like cancer, because of higher rates of benzene. Benzene is a known carcinogen.

The modeling also found that people who are farther and farther away from gas operations may face lower health risks from potential benzene exposure, said Teresa Coons, senior scientist for the Saccomanno Research Institute at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, which conducted the two-year assessment along with Mesa State College.

“Those are probability statements,” said Coons, referring to the assessment’s findings regarding potential health risks near oil and gas operations. “We can’t say for sure that somebody will be harmed.”

Russell Walker, a professor of environmental science at Mesa State College who conducted the mathematical modeling, said his research showed that for distances up to a couple of hundred of yards from the gas operation he analyzed benzene concentrations could be significant.

However, if green completion technologies are used ” which recover gas that would otherwise be vented or flared during the completion phase of natural gas well ” benzene rates could be reduced by about 90 percent, he said.

Those findings have Walker calling for increased use of green completion and best management practices by the natural gas industry in the area. But if those aren’t implemented, the need to place wells farther away from schools and residences may become more important, he said.

Recommendations like the one Walker proposed are currently being discussed as the state is working to draft new rules for the state’s oil and gas industry. Last week, industry workers, landowners and others blasted the proposed rules at a Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hearing in Grand Junction.

Walker and Coons spoke about their findings Tuesday night at the West Garfield campus of Colorado Mountain College in Rifle. More analysis and data about the cumulative effects a well pad could have on a household needs to be done, said Liz Chandler, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, a local environmental advocacy group.

Donna Gray, a spokeswoman for Williams Production RMT, declined to talk specifically about what was presented Tuesday night, but said the company has hired a toxicologist to review the study and its 250 pages thoroughly.

Coons said earlier in the day that data from the two-year community health risk assessment led researchers to conclude that “we are not seeing a major health crisis” in Garfield County.

“That is not to say that some people haven’t had health problems that could be related to the industry,” Coons said. “There certainly are individual differences in susceptibility to exposure to toxic materials.”

The purpose of the Coon’s health risk assessment, as compared to Walker’s work in environmental assessment, was to create a “picture” of the health of Garfield County residents.

The idea was to see if the there is a health difference between residents who live in the western part of the county ” where there is significant oil and gas development ” as compared to those who live in the eastern parts of the county.

The assessment also looked to see if county residents’ health is different from those who live in Mesa, Delta and Montrose counties, which are not seeing the rapid growth of natural gas development as compared to Garfield County.

“Garfield County as a whole doesn’t look that much different than the other western Colorado counties that we looked at,” Coons said.

In 2004, the state issued 796 permits in Garfield County. Since then, the level of permitting in the county has skyrocketed, with the state issuing 2,550 drilling permits in Garfield County in 2007 ” an increase of 220 percent from 2004.

Coons and others prepared the health risk assessment by surveying local residents, elected officials and others, and analyzing health records from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, hospital discharge data, emergency room information and extensive household surveys.

Coons said there are some trends in health conditions in Garfield County that she thinks “are worth monitoring and watching.” Those trends include increases in respiratory conditions and sexually transmitted diseases.

“We have some trend data looking backward, but not a lot, and the industry hasn’t been in the area for a real long time,” Coons said. “So for some of the health effects that you might think of as more chronic results of exposure aren’t going to show up for a number of years.”

Coons said she will also recommend that Garfield County attempt to set up a medical monitoring system, where primary care physicians “are much more aware of what’s going on” and to watch for unusual trends.

“We think we created a baseline that has never existed before,” Coons said. “This is the most comprehensive study that has been done of potential natural gas industry impacts, but of health in general in the county.”

The health risk assessment is still in the process of technical review, which includes having Public Health and Environment staff look through its findings to make sure the data is “correct and the assumptions are correct,” Coons said.