John Colson: They came, they spoke, but were they heard?
Hit & Run
A couple of weeks ago (April 17, to be exact) I traveled down to the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department Annex (adjacent to the Garfield County Rifle Airport, on a bench of land overlooking the Colorado River Valley) to observe a public input session conducted by the state’s Air Quality Control Commission about air pollution from oil and gas facilities.
The AQCC last fall passed a new set of regulations for monitoring oil and gas facilities to detect leaks of methane and other “volatile organic compounds” (or VOCs, as they’re known in industry and government parlance) from gas wells, storage tanks, pipelines, compressor stations and myriad other infrastructure elements involved with the exploitation of oil and gas reserves.
But the state only enacted the new monitoring rules for nine counties along the Front Range, where air quality has for some time not been meeting federal guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency in keeping with the U.S. Clean Air Act.
The rest of the state, according to the thinking at the time, would have to wait until 2020, at least, before the new rules might be extended to include, say, Garfield County, which as of last year had roughly a fifth of all the gas wells in the state (11,248 in Garfield County, 54,369 for the state as a whole), according to reporting by Silt area resident Peggy Tibbetts and her blog, “From the Styx.”
The April 17 meeting was part of a process for determining how Western Slope residents feel about having to wait for tighter monitoring rules.
And, if the crowd at the Sheriff’s Annex is any indication, the local population is not happy about being left out and wants the rules extended sooner rather than later to cover at least Garfield County if not the whole of the Western Slope.
Of those who spoke, the vast majority (I think there were about 50 people in attendance, maybe more) were in favor of extending the stiffer monitoring regulations over the entire state, as a way of ensuring that the state and industry are doing everything they can to limit air pollution that can cause everything from sinus irritation to lung congestion to asthma to death, and a whole lot in between.
What was that? Did you say death?
I know of two people who died as an apparent result of exposure to the toxic stew of VOCs that can spew out of oil and gas wells and other facilities under various circumstances. I say “apparent” result because the industry, with cooperation from its government enablers, has long done all it can to stifle meaningful examination of the air-quality impacts from drilling and pumping all that gas.
I also know several people who believe their health has suffered from that same kind of exposure, but have long fought unsuccessfully to get state or industry experts to listen and take action to help.
If the public’s right to clean air and strict regulation, positioned against the industry’s right to make money off oil and gas, were to be defined as war, the industry can be declared the winner by a long shot.
By delaying, undermining and generally obfuscating any and all efforts to look closely at the polluting effects of oil and gas drilling, the industry has made sure it was able to drill like mad all over the state and nation with relative impunity. The wells are there, and even if it becomes clear they have sickened and killed their neighbors, closing them down likely would not do much good for those sickened or dead, and in fact shutting down all those thousands of wells probably is not practical in any event.
It was an SRO crowd that day near Rifle, and one can only imagine how many more people might have shown up if the state had done more to publicize the meeting, or if it had been held in a less out-of-the-way spot, or if it had been held at some other time than 3 p.m. on a Tuesday when most people are at their jobs.
But despite the inconvenience involved, a few of those affected by the industry’s activities did manage to show up April 17 and say their piece. The question now will be, were they truly heard, and will it help?
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