Frackers and their critics argue over proposed study of industry's health risks

Not enough is known about the health impacts of oil and gas drilling in Colorado, or we already know more than enough. Surveying residents who live near wells about their "quality of life" is either a terrific idea or a lot of unscientific twaddle -- and a waste of money to boot. The sparring at Thursday's hearing over House Bill 14-1297, which would require a study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing in four Front Range counties, reflected the fractious divide among legislators, business interests, environmentalists and others over our booming natural gas industry.

Representative Joann Ginal, a Democrat from Fort Collins and the bill's sponsor, argued that the scientific literature on the health risks of fracking is skimpier than one might expect. Only six such studies have focused on Colorado, she noted, and four of those centered on Garfield County; the other two essentially derived from the same data concerning two wells in Erie. A biologist by training, Ginal could find only seven national studies in peer-reviewed journals.

"That's all we have," she explained to the House's Health, Insurance and Environment Committee. "When people say there's a lot of data out there, this is what I've found that's deemed credible. I can't say if hyrdraulic fracturing is safe or not."

HB 14-1297 would require an analysis of health and "quality of life" issues among residents near wells in Boulder, Adams, Larimer and Weld County, conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and supervised by a "scientific oversight committee," a three-year process that's estimated to cost between $500,000 and $600,000. Ginal introduced a similar bill last year, but it was one of several pieces of proposed oil-and-gas regulation that was defeated by a strong push-back from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and other interests.

This time around, several Republican members of the committee voiced a range of objections to the proposed study, followed by a parade of industry advocates and chamber-of-commerce types. Representative Frank McNulty likened the bill to an effort to re-test medication that's already been tested and approved in other states. "A well-regulated industry does not pose public health threats to our citizens," he declared. "We have this huge body of, you're proposing that the state go back and test it once again."

Others questioned the vagueness of the "quality of life" criteria -- Ginal explained that the study would look at factors such as noise and traffic, as well as air and water quality -- and the cumbersome nature of the oversight committee. But others defended the study as a welcome and needed addition to emerging data over the substantial degree to which "clean" natural gas development is contributing to Front Range pollution, even with recently adopted tough standards. Existing studies relating fracking emissions to health haven't been adequate, they insisted -- and some have generated controversy, such as a recent report linking wells in rural Colorado to birth defects, a finding that state health officials quickly disowned.

A vote on the bill was postponed until next week. Regardless of the outcome, wrestling with industry safeguards and restrictions continues to be a major political drama this season. A host of ballot initiatives are underway to expand local controls over fracking, and McNulty has proposed his own bill to prevent communities that vote to impose a moratorium on new drilling from receiving energy severance tax revenues.

More from our Environment archive circa February 3: "Fracking linked to birth defects? Colorado study fuels debate."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast