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Residents Of Gas Patch In Colorado Suffering In Silence

So far it is an insurmountable wall they have come across, feel residents of the west Garfield County, near Silt, Colorado, where hundreds of wells are dug up everyday, in the search of natural gas. Indeed this area is a treasure trove for natural gas investors- but sadly, the lure of big bucks blinds them to the repercussions of their hunt.

Residents have complained of headaches, skin irritation, nausea and dizziness from breathing noxious fumes that emanate from the rigs. Yet, their complaints that the fumes are causing illness do not elicit any action, simply because there's no medical data to back it up.

Says Garfield County environmental health manager Jim Rada: I don't know that we can do anything about health effects caused by oil and gas operations, except advise them to see a physician. "One of the problems is when people call they generally don't have any medical information to support their claims."

At the same time, Garfield County is sponsoring a health-risk study to determine if oil and gas activity is linked to serious health problems. Project director Teresa Coons, from Grand Junction-based Saccomano Research Institute, has said that it is difficult to link health problems with single causes. According to her, "not everyone is equally susceptible to toxic material exposure."

Nationally famed biochemical researcher Theo Colborn, has investigated chemicals used in the oil and gas industry and found 245 compounds that can cause skin, nerve and stomach problems. "I've visited with people with health problems, and we're beginning to see patterns," she says. "Our concern is, if this stuff gets into our drinking water you can't get it out and it will get into our homes."

Yet, there have been some improvements after neighbors in these areas banded together to demand the gas operators take steps to minimize the impacts. More recently, a series of bills aimed at reforming oil and gas activity in the state was passed, and that also made a difference.

According to Rada, some of the energy companies operating in the area have also adopted measures to reduce emissions. "Some companies are trying to route gas to combustors instead of burning off the gas above ground. While there are still problems with leaking equipment, for example, they are trying to reduce emissions," he opines.

Several producers, including EnCana, Noble and Williams, participate in the Environmental Protection Agency's Natural Gas Star program "to eliminate fugitive emissions from oil and gas" operations. "EnCana has new solar pumps on well sites that reduce fugitive emissions by 80 percent," Rada adds.

So far, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), received six specific health complaints last year and 89 complaints about fumes or odors, according to COGCC hearings manager Tricia Beaver. Some of the odor complaints could also be associated with health concerns, but the agency doesn't track them that way, she added.

When field inspectors get a complaint about odors "they go out and see if they can smell or observe the same conditions." Sometimes inspectors can't identify the problem. "I do know some of the odor complaints, even if we get out quickly, the field folks don't always smell the same thing, Beaver was quoted. Nor does the agency have the expertise to respond to health complaints, she adds.

Now, with the passage of House Bill 1341, new non- industry members will be added to the commission, including a representative from the state health department. Says Rep. Kathleen Curry, who sponsored many of those bills: "By giving the health department a voice on the commission, I think we have taken a major step forward in terms of regulating the industry's impacts to public health. By requiring rulemaking to protect public health we have also moved the issue forward as a mandate instead of a consideration - which is how public health is currently treated - and that elevates the issue."


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