DeGette urges EPA to consider health threats posed by gas drilling

As the Environmental Protection Agency finalizes its air standards for hydraulic fracturing, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette sent a letter today asking it to consider a new study that shows Colorado residents living near natural gas wells are exposed to increased levels of carcinogens and other toxins.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (Photo via http://degette.house.gov)

“The researchers found higher lifetime cancer risks for people living closer to the wells,” reads the letter from DeGette and Rep. Henry Waxman. “They also concluded that these nearby residents have a higher risk of experiencing neurological and respiratory health effects, such as headaches, throat and eye irritation, impaired lung capacity, dizziness, fatigue, numbness in the limbs, and tremors.”

The study that DeGette, D-Colorado, and Waxman, D-California, referenced was based on a three-year review of the Battlement Mesa area of Garfield County where several companies are drilling for natural gas that a class-action lawsuit claims is endangering the community.

Escalated levels of ozone pollution have been recorded in the Uintah Basin in Utah and the Green River Basin in Wyoming near oil drilling sites and researchers say residents living near hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” operations in the Piceance and Denver-Julesberg basins in Colorado are also susceptible to dirtier air, which can impair breathing and worsen respiratory problems such as asthma.

Regulators at all levels of government are trying to establish safe standards for air emissions from fracking, which the EPA has also, at least preliminarily, linked to ground water contamination in Wyoming. Opponents of oil and gas drilling contend existing regulations are too lenient and that they are not adequately enforced. A recent report found there were 516 spills in Colorado last year and only five of them resulted in fines for the companies that allowed them to happen.

Gov. John Hickenlooper recently convened a task force to “help clarify and better coordinate” the regulatory jurisdiction between state and local governments but his critics claim the task force is a Trojan horse, designed to take away rights from local governments and instead leave their fates up to the allegedly inept state system. Boulder County, Longmont and Colorado Springs have already temporarily halted drilling activity while Commerce City, Erie and Aurora, Arapahoe County, Douglas County, Elbert County, El Paso County and Huerfano County are vying for their own regulations.

DeGette and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D- Colorado, have previously asked President Obama to strengthen federal environmental and public health standards to protect against the risks associated with fracking. In speeches this year and last, Obama has emphasized natural gas as a key resource in his “all-of-the-above” strategy to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil.

Many Coloradans are protesting the increased drilling in the state, and asking for the federal government to stave off oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley and other locales.

Here is DeGette and Waxman’s letter in its entirety:

April 3, 2012

The Honorable Lisa Jackson
Administrator
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20460

Dear Administrator Jackson:

EPA is working to finalize new standards for oil and gas operations to reduce emissions of smog-forming volatile organic compounds and toxic air pollutants that can cause cancer and other serious health effects. As you consider these standards, we ask that you consider a new study from the Colorado School of Public Health that raises concerns about the potential public health impact of air emissions from unconventional gas drilling operations. The findings from this study, while preliminary, reinforce the importance of your forthcoming rules and the need for additional research.

Scientists at the Colorado School of Public Health examined three years of air monitoring data in Garfield County, Colorado and concluded that residents living near natural gas wells may face increased exposure to benzene, a known human carcinogen, and other toxic chemicals, such as ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene. The researchers found higher lifetime cancer risks for people living closer to the wells. They also concluded that these nearby residents have a higher risk of experiencing neurological and respiratory health effects, such as headaches, throat and eye irritation, impaired lung capacity, dizziness, fatigue, numbness in the limbs, and tremors.

The authors concluded:

[P]reliminary results indicate that health effects resulting from air emissions during development of unconventional natural gas resources are most likely to occur in residents living nearest to the well pads and warrant further study. Risk prevention efforts should be directed towards reducing air emission exposures for persons living and working near wells during well completions.

We support the responsible and safe production of U.S. oil and natural gas resources. The good news is that we can control potentially harmful air emissions from drilling operations by implementing proven technology and best practices already in use today. We hope that you will consider the results of this new study in your rulemaking, and we look forward to reviewing EPA’s new rules once finalized.

Sincerely,

Henry A. Waxman
Ranking Member

Diana DeGette
Ranking Member

Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations

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About the Author

Troy Hooper

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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