A group of citizen activists in the Western Slope retirement community of Battlement Mesa is hoping a type of health-impact study used successfully in the oil fields of Alaska’s North Slope can help them curtail pollution, traffic and noise from a looming natural gas drilling plan in their Garfield County town of 5,000.
They have their work cut out for them. In conversations with The Colorado Independent, citizens say they have little faith that county commissioners elected to protect public health but backed by oil and gas money will put residents’ interests before those of the energy companies.
The push for a health impact assessment, or HIA — offered through grants from Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — is coming from a group of “active retirees” who moved to western Colorado for clean living. They have urged Garfield County public health officials to ask the board of county commissioners to consider conducting the assessment prior to making any decisions on a plan to drill up to 200 gas wells in the heart of their community. Residents might suddenly see gas rigs rise as close as 400 feet from their homes. A tentative plan would also site two rigs on the municipal golf course.
“We have a community of 5,000 people here, many of them retired and many of them with health issues, and the reason they come to western Colorado is for the clean air and the clean water and the healthier lifestyle, and we feel that we’re being attacked by the gas drilling industry here and our health and welfare is at risk,” said Dave Devanney of Battlement Concerned Citizens.
The health-impact assessments, supported by the national Health Impact Project, have had success in moving the dial on these kinds of debates in the past. An HIA conducted in 2007 led to compromises between the Bureau of Land Management and Inupiat residents of Alaska’s North Slope to monitor air quality and any oil and gas drilling contamination of the wildlife they hunt.
The drilling project for Battlement Mesa would be extremely intrusive.
Although Denver-based Antero Resources has yet to submit its comprehensive drilling plan, or CDP, to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) – the state agency with oversight of oil and gas production — the company has previously discussed plans to drill up to 200 wells from 10 well pads in the community.
“Who else do we have to turn to but our county officials to help us look after the welfare of the citizens here?” Devanney said. He said county support of the HIA is not a given. “I believe they’re going to act on it. Whether they act favorably or not we’ll have to see. It seems that our three-member commission typically runs 2-1 in favor of the industry, but our intent is to request what we feel we need and force them to make a decision between energy or public health.”
Devanney said Garfield County’s environmental health manager, Jim Rada, seemed sympathetic to the Battlement Mesa cause at a meeting late last week, agreeing to present the HIA concept to the county commissioners at a Dec. 8 meeting, but the two Republican board members Monday outvoted the lone Democrat on a resolution opposing the FRAC Act, federal legislation aimed at increasing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversight of the natural gas industry.
Antero Resources representatives did not return phone calls requesting comment Thursday. Democratic Garfield County Commissioner Trési Houpt, also a member of the COGCC, has said she supports the FRAC Act and is concerned about the local public health impacts of drilling. Republicans John Martin and Mike Samson, whose campaigns last year both saw an infusion of outside oil and gas money, may be a tougher sell.
Devanney said another group, the Oil and Gas Committee of the Battlement Mesa Service Association, is working with Antero and the county to try to establish 1,000-foot setbacks between drilling rigs and homes. Typically the COGCC has jurisdiction over such matters, but the county approved the original Battlement Mesa PUD in the 1970s and has agreed to at least review Antero’s drilling plan from a land-use perspective once it’s submitted.
County regs rarely win out over state rules, but a 2006 Gunnison County case did establish some precedent. COGCC executive director David Neslin this summer told The Colorado Independent negotiation is always the best path, but ultimately the matter may have to be decided by the attorney general.
“Obviously, at some level the State Legislature has assigned to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission [COGCC] the responsibility for facilitating the development of the state’s oil and gas resources in a way that’s safe and protects the environment,” Neslin said. “And at some point, local government actions or decisions that conflict with that legislative mandate could be preempted. As to any particular instance that’s going to raise a legal issue, then we’d have to look to the attorney general’s office for advice on it.”
Community activists have also asked the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to conduct a baseline study of the impacts of natural gas drilling in a residential area before the COGCC makes any decisions regarding Battlement Mesa, but costs in the current state budget-slashing environment could be an issue.
That’s where a Health Impact Project grant, which range between $25,000 and $125,000, could fill the void, Devanney said. HIAs have become increasingly popular in Europe, Canada and Australia, where they have been used to study the long-term health impacts of everything from industrial development to transportation projects. So far, other than Alaska, HIAs have not been used that much in the United States.
“We’re just one little, small community here, but we’re hoping that we might be able to find ourselves in the forefront of something more progressive with this health impact assessment,” Devanney said. “The likelihood of that happening in Garfield County, we’ll just have to wait and see …”