Air Pollution in the Gas Fields
Air Date: Week of September 23, 2011
Bill Strudley says his home has become unlivable. The family abandoned the home after fumes made them sick and tap water started smelling like chemicals.
The Environmental Protection Agency has scheduled a series of hearings in Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado to hear residents’ health concerns about air pollution from natural gas drilling operations. As Conrad Wilson of KDNK in Carbondale, Colorado reports, tests show high levels of ozone and toxic benzene. (Photo: Samantha Pickard)
GELLERMAN: Natural gas companies are discovering gas in more and more places, and many communities unaccustomed to drilling rigs and pumps are suddenly right in the middle of a natural gas boom. Garfield County, Colorado, is one of those places, but along with the growth of the new gas industry are growing concerns about health. Conrad Wilson has our report.
WILSON: Karen Trulove is back in her old neighborhood in western Colorado. These green rolling hills, butting up against the snow-covered Rockies, used to be ranching and coal mining country. Now, retirees and folks escaping city life, live in small towns and developments where horses and cattle graze.
But sprinkled across this valley are the reasons Trulove says she was forced to leave: natural gas drilling rigs - which look a lot like city construction sites - and the finished wells - small structures with a bunch of pipes sticking out of the ground. Trulove says the fumes from these wells made her sick.
TRULOVE: There were many times when just after you smelled the fumes, that day or the next day, you would be so lethargic that you could sit in a chair for six hours and not move a muscle.
WILSON: Eventually, she moved. Nearby, Bill Strudley abandoned his 3500 square foot home after he says his family got sick.
STRUDLEY: I’d walk out into my driveway at 5:30 in the morning and my wife would follow me and I said, "You better keep the kids inside today, because it stinks."
WILSON: Strudley says his well water eventually started to smell like chemicals, so the family stopped using it.
STRUDLEY: We had plastic duct tape to the inside windows of our house so the air couldn’t come in.
WILSON: Today his house sits vacant. They’ve stopped paying their mortgage and rent in a nearby town where natural gas development hasn’t hit yet.
WILSON: Stories like these are increasingly common, as companies have started discovering a lot more gas, sometimes where people already live. A few miles down the road from the Strudley’s old home, a large rig drills new wells. The gas is owned by Encana, one of the many operators in the area.
HOCK: The health impact issue is one that is challenging, because you have to find a causal link.
WILSON: That’s Doug Hock, a spokesperson with the company. He acknowledges that drilling for natural gas is an industrial process that creates pollution. But he says the industry has come a long way in how it interacts with the community to minimize environmental impacts. For example, they’ve helped develop a hotline for residents to call and report their concerns, including ones about public health.
HOCK: We’re an industry of scientists and engineers, and we have to make our decisions based on sound science. And so, you know, we get people saying, "Well, I think this well is making me sick," but unless we have that link, you know, it’s hard for us to react and respond to that.
WILSON: Residents of Garfield County, where much of Colorado gas drilling is taking place, may look to environmental health manager Jim Rada. But Rada says there’s not much he can do.
RADA: Although there’ve been many anecdotal cases brought to the attention of county officials and perhaps health professionals in and around Garfield County, I’m not aware of any documented cause and effect relationship that’s been drawn relative to any of those cases.
WILSON: Rada says the county can’t test for something at a moment’s notice. Besides that, he's the health officer for everything from air quality to flu shot clinics. And he says many of the pollution complaints involve sporadic exposure.
RADA: It’s really hard to, number one, isolate what it could be that’s causing the symptoms, and then recovering it in an environmental sample. What may have occurred to cause somebody to get sick, or feel that they’ve been made sick, may not be happening when we get there.
WILSON: Colorado doesn't require any onsite gas field monitoring for air quality. Places that have done such monitoring found some serious problems. Last winter, gas-drilling areas in Wyoming recorded smog or ozone concentrations comparable to Los Angeles and Houston. In Texas, inspectors found toxic benzene - which causes leukemia - seeping from gas equipment almost every place they checked. Corey Zurbuch’s an attorney in Aspen. He says he gets calls daily from people affected by natural gas development.
ZURBUCH: The typical conversation begins with an expression of immense frustration.
WILSON: Zurbuch recently filed a class action lawsuit against gas driller Antero Resources to pay for environmental testing and set up a trust fund to help people should they get sick from natural gas development.
ZURBUCH: This is not a localized event. The drilling operations are going on in many states around the country. And we’re seeing the same problems over and over again.
WILSON: Standing outside her old house, Karen Truelove says the impacts she’s experienced speak for themselves.
TRULOVE: What we went through here was just kinda like being in a war zone. It was really like we weren’t in Colorado anymore. It was like we weren’t in the United States anymore. Because the effects of it were so extensive and we couldn’t believe that no one really cared about us.
WILSON: Momentum is building around the country for more attention to gas field emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency, under a court order, this summer proposed the first national limits on pollutants from gas drilling, but they're not final yet. For Living on Earth, I'm Conrad Wilson in Carbondale, Colorado.
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