Garfield County officials see value in Battlement Mesa health study

Garfield County public health officials believe a relatively untested type of health impact study could be a valuable tool in assessing the risks of natural gas drilling in the heart of the Battlement Mesa retirement community on Colorado’s Western Slope.

One of the 'million dollar views' Battlement Mesa uses to advertise itself (Photo: Battlement Mesa)
One of the 'million dollar views' Battlement Mesa uses to advertise itself (Photo: Battlement Mesa)

Jim Rada, Garfield County’s environmental health manager, told The Colorado Independent on Monday he has done some initial research into a Health Impact Assessment (HIA), which so far have been limited domestically to the oil fields of Alaska’s North Slope, and agrees with community activists that an HIA could fill some gaps in the county’s knowledge base.

A grassroots group of residents called Battlement Concerned Citizens is worried that a proposal by Denver-based Antero Resources to drill up to 200 natural gas wells from 10 well pads in the unincorporated community of 5,000 could lead to air, water, noise and light pollution and unduly jeopardize the health of an aging populace that retired to the former Exxon oil shale town for its healthy mountain lifestyle.

An HIA is an assessment of the potential impacts of a proposed development on local residents that is funded by grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The assessments have become increasingly popular in Europe, Canada and Australia.

Other Battlement Mesa community groups have been pushing to establish 1,000-foot setbacks for drilling rigs in proximity to homes, instead of the state’s current 150-foot limit, in order to ease impacts. Air and water quality and rig setback concerns for an elderly population, or even young children, are all valid issues, Rada said.

“Those particular community issues do play into a potential decision to pursue a Health Impact Assessment,” Rada said. “There’s definitely community information that we don’t have readily available at our fingertips, such as what is the relative population of seniors in the community, the numbers of children in the community, where do the populations live relative to where the development activity will be going on?

“We don’t really have a good handle on that. So that’s definitely one area where we could use some help in terms of evaluating the impacts on the community.”

But Rada did say some aspects of what might be covered in an HIA are already being done by the county — namely an ambient air-quality study in the nearby Parachute area. Although that information has not been released to the public pending third-party review, Rada said it has been turned over to Antero for use in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved dispersion models for its proposed Battlement Mesa drilling project.

“We provided the ambient air-quality data that we’ve gathered over the last two or three years in the Parachute area, which I would believe would represent air quality that is currently not as good as what we would likely find in Battlement Mesa,” Rada said. “So it’s a little worse scenario.”

Because Garfield County approved the original Planned Unit Development (PUD) for Battlement Mesa in the 1970s, it maintains some level of project review authority even though oil and gas production is typically the purview of the state under the auspices of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Antero officials say they hope to submit a plan to both the county (called a Major Land Use Impact Review) and the COGCC (a Comprehensive Drilling Plan) by the end of the year.

Rada said some of what an HIA might accomplish has also been taking place in the form of community meetings, with Antero addressing concerns in both its state and county plans. Antero officials point to more than 10 meetings with various community groups.

“We have incorporated a variety of changes to our plans with the input we have been receiving and have taken other suggestions and concerns under advisement for further study in our execution of the project,” said Kevin Kilstrom, Antero’s vice president for production. “The input we have been receiving from the community will also help us refine our upcoming application for Major Land Use Impact Review with Garfield County.”

Rada said he hopes the county’s public health staff can meet with the county commissioners on the HIA issue and get back to Battlement Concerned Citizens by mid-December. “Being responsive to the citizens of the county that we represent is always a worthy thing,” he said.

Dave Devanney of Battlement Concerned Citizens said that during the natural gas boom that started in the late 1990s there was concern about traffic and noise and dust, but the drilling was outside of town and so residents took the good with the bad, enjoying low property taxes, more jobs and a general vibrancy to the community.

“So we kind of made our sacrifices then and we kind of felt we did more than our share, but now when they come and say ‘we’re going to put our rigs right in your back yards,’ we’re not happy about that and we’re going to do everything we can to see that our lifestyle here isn’t jeopardized further,” Devanney said.

Now the industry is once again in a bust cycle given the global recession and decline in gas prices — which has led to a much higher apartment vacancy rate and declines in student enrollment in the local schools — but Devanney said he knows the boom will return with a vengeance someday.

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