NY Times exposes EPA's lax oversight of natural gas industry as Garfield County lives with it

By David O. Williams
Real AspenMarch 3, 2011

As The New York Times continues to expose infighting in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its regulation – or the lack thereof – of the nation’s booming natural gas industry, county officials in Colorado are grappling with health impact assessments (HIA) of their own.

Garfield County this week released a second draft of an HIA conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) and first released last fall. It looks at the potential health impacts of a proposal by Denver-based Antero Resources to drill up to 200 new natural gas wells in the Battlement Mesa community. Interested parties have until the end of the month to comment.

“The principal findings of the HIA are that health of Battlement Mesa residents will most likely be affected by chemical exposures, accidents/emergencies resulting from industry operations, and stress-related community changes,” the executive summary of the second draft reads.

Battlement Mesa

A team of researchers, including experts in public health, epidemiology, environmental health, environmental chemistry, exposure assessment and environmental medicine used existing data on emissions, water quality issues and social factors to estimate the potential health impacts of natural gas drilling in Battlement Mesa – an unincorporated Garfield County community of more than 5,000.

“The report responds directly to serious concerns that Battlement Mesa residents have had, and puts extensive research on the table for their review,” said Jim Rada, Environmental Health Manager for Garfield County Public Health and the HIA project manager. The county is paying for the assessment.

Early industry comments indicate resistance to the report’s conclusions, including from officials who “expressed concern that the way risks are stated in the HIA may cause industry workers to ask why their employers are not telling them about health risks.” Oil and gas representatives also indicated “the industry often becomes the lightning rod for all issues that people claims to experience when industry moves into an area.”

The New York Times series, which includes a video focusing on Garfield County and its struggles with air quality issues and serious public health concerns, has had major ripple effects in Colorado and around the nation.

Democrats in Congress are demanding more transparency and urgency from the EPA as it studies the controversial drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing and whether it should continue to be exempted from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

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