Health Costs of Oil and Gas Drilling Discussed

Jun 27, 2014

Wednesday night, the Grand Valley Citizen’s Alliance held a meeting in Parachute. 

It was a public discussion about the health effects of oil and gas drilling.  There were two guest speakers, Dr. Lisa McKenzie and Dr. John Hughes.

Dr. McKenzie is a research associate at the Colorado School of Public Heath.  She worked on a Health Impact Assessment for Garfield County back in 2010.  The county fielded concerns over well development on Battlement Mesa, and commissioned this assessment to gauge the impact on the citizens.  It was never finished for the county due to budgeting, but McKenzie’s group finished the study themselves and published it in peer reviewed journals.

"The Health Impact Assessment basically found that possible health impacts from the oil and gas project that was going into Battlement Mesa could possibly have impacts to health through hazardous air pollutants," said McKenzie, "non chemical stressors like noise and traffic, and then changes and stresses in the community."

Her presentation was very straightforward.  Her talk was peppered with cautions and guarded statements.

Dr. Hughes works in Basalt and Aspen. 

"I do integrated medicine," said Hughes, "which is basically helping people keep from using drugs and surgery if possible."

After struggling to help some of his patients, Hughes started looking into how close they lived to gas wells and their levels of VOC’s.  Volatile Organic Compounds are chemicals like ethelbenzene, xylene and others that are found in petroleum products.  Hughes found consistent, elevated levels in patients in Erie where wells are more prevalent and no patterns in areas like Carbondale where wells are much farther away.

"We found a significant elevation in a particular type of VOC called ethylbenzene, as well as xylenes," said Hughes, "which are emissions from natural gas wells." 

But as Dr. Hughes himself pointed out before he began, he’s not a scientific doctor.  He’s a medical doctor who did this research for his own knowledge.  His study wasn’t peer reviewed or held up to rigorous standards.  He didn’t exactly have the detachment of McKenzie either.

"You guys have heard 'Frackenlooper,'" said Hughes, "I think he was put there by Encana, so it's not a secret to anybody."

David Ludlam is a representative for the Western Colorado Oil and Gas Association.  He was there and took issue with Dr. Hughes’ presentation, contrasting McKenzie’s academics with Hughes’ activism.  He said the industry is on the same side, investigating potential health hazards.

"We're proud of the progress we've made over the last decade," said Ludlam, "as it relates to improving emissions, improving water quality, and having a better understanding of the impacts we do have."

He questions Hughes' results, and called the accusations insulting.

"I think you're trying to deliver a good industry," replied Hughes, "but it needs to be cleaned up and you almost have to take it to the extreme in seeing how detrimental it could be in order to be motivated.  If we just say 'oh maybe it's dangerous, maybe it's not,' we're all going to sit on the sidelines." 

For Hughes, the risk, just the possibility that gas wells might be causing health problems, is enough to take drastic action. 

Garfield County's Health Impact Assessment can be found on their website.