Health fears persist on Western Slope
Vail CO, Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Dee Hoffmeister is feeling better these days. She’s been going to an acupuncturist for a couple of months and is taking Chinese herbs.
“It’s helping,” she said.
But she also knows her health problems, which she attributes to the natural gas drilling near her home south of Silt, are not acknowledged by traditional doctors.
“I was in the hospital and I had all the tests. I told them in the beginning they wouldn’t show anything unless I glow in the dark,” she said.
That’s been the frustration for Hoffmeister and some of her neighbors in the gas patch in western Garfield County where hundreds of wells are drilled every year. Residents have complained of headaches, skin irritation, nausea and dizziness from breathing what they believe are noxious fumes that emanate from the rigs. But their complaints that the fumes are causing illness don’t wash with regulators, they say, because there’s no medical data to back it up.
Hoffmeister, who has a retirement home in the Dry Hollow area south of Silt in the midst of a heavily developed gas field, had the air around her house tested. Results showed the presence of potentially toxic compounds including benzene and toluene, which are known components of the condensate ” or crude petroleum ” that comes out of the ground with natural gas.
“I’ve had vertigo, pain in my skin and body and on the backs of my legs and arms,” she said.
She has complained to state agencies about the odors and her health concerns. “It was like every door I knocked on was shut in my face,” she said.
Beth Dardynski, who also lives in Dry Hollow, said she has suffered similar ailments.
“We’re in the bull’s-eye of tons of development,” she said. “I’m really sensitive.”
When she smells the fumes she gets sick to her stomach and suffers from headaches, she said. It’s been going on for some time.
“We bought our property in 1999, and this (drilling) has been going on for at least five years.”
Nor does she see any slowdown of development. “We have wells 360 degrees,” around our home, she said.
Garfield County environmental health manager Jim Rada said officials can only advise people to see a doctor.
“One of the problems is when people call they generally don’t have any medical information to support their claims,” Rada said.
Garfield County is funding a health study to determine if oil and gas activity is linked to serious health problems. Project director Teresa Coons, of the Grand Junction-based Saccomano Research Institute, has said that it is difficult to link health problems with single causes. She also said “not everyone is equally susceptible to toxic material exposure.”
Biochemical researcher Theo Colborn of Paonia 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 said. “Our concern is, if this stuff gets into our drinking water you can’t get it out and it will get into our homes.”
Over the years, however, conditions have improved, Dardynski said, especially since neighbors in the Dry Hollow and other areas south of the Colorado River between Silt and Parachute 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 have passed, and that has also made a difference. Now when she calls the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, field inspectors investigate complaints more quickly, she said.
“I truly believe because they saw the handwriting on the wall, they realized they had to play nice with the neighbors,” she said.
The oil and gas commission received six specific health complaints last year and 89 complaints about fumes or odors, said the agency’s 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 said.
When field inspectors get a complaint about odors “they go out and see if they can smell or observe the same conditions,” but sometimes inspectors can’t identify the problem, she said.
“I do know some of the odor complaints, even if we get out quickly, the field folks don’t always smell the same thing,” she said.
However, 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. And Rada said some of the energy companies operating in the area are trying 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 said.
Several producers, including EnCana, Noble and Williams, participate in the U.S. 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 said.
With all that, “there are still a number of well pads that don’t have environmental controls,” he added.
Unwilling to leave the home she has put so much into despite the concerns about her health, Hoffmeister said she makes do with a difficult situation. She also worries about her seven grandchildren who live on her property.
“What’s going to happen to them? Will they get cancer? That’s what you worry about,” she said.
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