Air Quality Clouds Western Skies and Health

Air quality on the Western Slope is deteriorating. Resort areas nestled in deep valleys such as Aspen and Vail have been battling vehicular smog for quite some time. However, the oil and gas industry impacts, with dust from road construction and industrial ozone emissions, are a newer phenomenon in Western Colorado. Some residents close to drilling activities fear that air quality has been so affected by chemicals used by the energy industry that it has harmed their health.When the state Colorado Air Quality Control Commission considered new air quality regulations for the oil and gas industry a few weeks ago, it proposed two different standards for energy development emissions: controls would be much more stringent in the Denver area and the other rule would be less strict for other areas in the state.

Residents from Garfield County, an area that has seen a dramatic increase of drilling activity, and representatives from the environmental group, Western Colorado Congress spoke in favor of having one statewide air quality standard. Recent air quality tests in Garfield County have shown that there are already elevated levels of BTEX chemicals – benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes – which are considered air pollutants and a health risk.

“There are Garfield County residents who have had to leave the area because of the health problems they feel were caused by the oil and gas drilling,” said Terra Meixsell of New Castle. “Some of the signs of sicknesses people suffer are burning eyes, skin rashes and even rectal bleeding. This is serious situation,” she emphasized.

Others have complained of nausea and problems with their livestock such as stillbirths. Some have reached settlements with oil and gas companies, which prevent them from speaking out. “It’s really hard to talk about how some people living by drilling activities have been affected by chemicals in the air without getting emotional,” Meixsell noted. “As one rancher put it succinctly: ‘We have to leave, or it’s going to kill us.’ “

The state’s Air Quality Control has been trying to curb oil and gas emissions for several years because Denver has been reaching Environmental Protection Agency health limits. Once these pollution standards are violated, Denver will lose its status as a clean-air city. Some air quality regulators believe that by improving air quality on the Western Slope, it would also help relieve Denver’s smog problem.

The commission will be making its recommendations on air quality standards for oil and gas activities by mid-December.

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Leslie Robinson

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