Energy industry refutes “fracking” health effects

Dollis Wright
Dollis Wright

Even as natural gas companies hope to escalate extraction in Western Colorado this year, the companies continue to address environmental concerns and questions about potential effects on the health of people who live in the region.

Environmental groups scrutinize the hydrofracturing process and fluids used to fracture rock to release gas. The companies often don’t like to divulge the contents of the fluids, citing fears about sharing proprietary information with competitors. Pressured by both environmentalists and the industry, lawmakers explore the feasibility of forcing companies to divulge such information.

Meanwhile, industry experts refute claims natural gas extraction causes health problems in nearby residents.

“Remember, it has to get into the body,” said Dollis Wright, an energy consultant who previously worked for the Centers for Disease Control. Addressing an audience at a recent energy briefing hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, Wright said people are quick to link a health problem to a nearby gas rig, but no provable connection has been established.

Wright said she reviewed several claims of health problems allegedly associated with natural gas and fracking fluids while she worked at the CDC. She had promising news to report to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “I went back to COGA and said I couldn’t find any evidence of any harm.”

Wright said she took the process a step further, asking energy companies if they could prove they weren’t causing harm.

Her final conclusions were:

n There must be a pathway from the source to the inside of a person for health problems to occur.

n No verifiable problems were confirmed from natural gas or oil development activity.

n Silicosis, a respiratory disease associated with asbestos, was the only health problem cited by the CDC and was not directly related to gas or oil extraction.

“And there’s no indication of chronic disease for workers who are exposed to greater levels,” Wright said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires energy company employees to know how to safely use chemicals.

Wright’s conclusions were echoed by Teresa Coons, mayor of Grand Junction, who studied potential health effects from the gas and oil industry when she worked as senior scientist at the Saccomanno Research Institute at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.

“We did not see any health risks directly related to exposure at this time,” Coons said of the report.

Still, health concerns about natural gas development have surfaced. In 2004, residents in Garfield County complained when natural gas seeped into Divide Creek south of Silt. Encana Oil and Gas acknowledged the gas came from a well in the area and shut off the leak into the creek. The discharge to the creek decreased dramatically within eight days, said David Andrews, an engineering supervisor for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

In the West, energy companies dispose of used fracking fluids by pumping then back into the ground through injection wells or pumping the fluids into surface evaporation ponds. Since the fluids evaporate into the atmosphere, companies are required to meet air and water quality standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Media reports in the East recently focused on EPA documents that indicate some rivers contain pollutants that wastewater treatment plants failed to extract from fracking fluids disposed into sewer systems. (See related story in the Water in the West section inside this issue). The fluids also reportedly contained carcinogens and radioactive material that mixed with fracking fluids when the fluids were pumped to the surface after fracturing rock. Companies working in Western Colorado say they don’t dispose of fracking fluids through sewer systems.

Wright said the energy industry must repeat its story to overcome false perceptions. “The only way to overcome it is to present the information.”

The EPA is conducting a study to determine the effects of fracking fluids. The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 excludes fracking fluids from the list of substances the EPA can regulate, although the EPA reserves the right to regulate fracking fluids that contain diesel fuel.

While the EPA continues to lay the groundwork for another study of fracking fluids, energy companies hope to continue using the process to free gas from rock as they expand operations in the Piceance Basin of Western Colorado and other parts of the country.