July 1, 2014

Increased Drilling And Public Health Complaints

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Weld County, CO resident Eric Ewing took this photo of a gas flare outside his home.

Eric Ewing

Weld County, CO resident Eric Ewing took this photo of a gas flare outside his home.

Energy boom states in the west are taking different tactics for recording and responding to public health complaints regarding oil and gas.

Inside Energy decided to look into these records after this State Impact Pennsylvania story found public health officials in that state have been told not to even return calls with health complaints about oil and gas.

As IE data journalist Jordan Wirfs-Brock found out, Colorado has the most comprehensive reporting in the region– complaints are posted to a public website with a database that tracks well inspections, spills, remediation as well as what comes in from the public.

North Dakota has been tracking these concerns as well, starting about six months ago. However, that data is not readily available to the public.

Wyoming, however, doesn’t track any of this stuff yet.

“We do not get very many complaints that you would categorize specifically as a health complaint,” said Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) Director Matt Lepore. “It’s usually potential health associated with some other kind of complaint.”

Over half of the total complaints about oil and gas concern groundwater, excessive noise, and air quality.

Eric Ewing lives near Gilcrest, in Weld County, Colorado, with his wife and two young kids. It’s an area surrounded by drilling activity. He said sometimes, when the wind is low, the air gets socked in and his family has been experiencing nausea, sore throats, dizziness, and rashes.

Ewing said it was difficult to find out how to file health complaints with the state. Some issues needed to be filed with the COGCC, others with the health department or county planners. But, once he figured out the system, he said he was generally satisfied with Colorado’s response.

“My impression is that they’re working very hard,” he said, “and they’re working very long hours to try to address some of these issues.”

But there is still a lot that’s unknown about these health impacts.

Lisa McKenzie, with the Colorado School of Public Health, has been researching the health effects of oil and gas development in human populations for the past four years.

She said the problems the Ewing family has are common and some of her preliminary research may show a connection between exposure to oil and gas emissions and higher cancer risks for children or a connection with higher rates of congenital heart defects. But these studies are still early in the process, still limited.  McKenzie said what she’s missing is baseline data: what was the air quality, water quality and health of the population was like before oil and gas development. She also says studies are needed which follow and track populations of people and study their health changes over time.

Two eastern states, Maryland and New York, are both funding public health impact studies. In Colorado, there are two large-scale air quality studies going on. They are funded by the state from money generated through oil and gas revenues and are ongoing.

The state also monitors cancer rates and birth defects, but has so far found no link connecting those rates with oil and gas development.

In the meantime, Eric Ewing has taken his family to their primary doctor.
And they’ve now been referred to a toxicologist.

A woman from the Colorado health department did visit his home once.  Ewing said she mentioned something about wishing she could wear a respirator when she came out to Weld Country, because of her own worries about the emissions.

“So I’m standing there, I’ve got a three year old and a five year old and my wife inside and I’m like what am I supposed to do? Just leave?”

But for the millions of people in the US who live near oil and gas development, moving isn’t always an option.

Check out our post on how various states are reporting and recording the public health impacts of oil and gas drilling here.