Frustration has largely kept me from blogging in recent weeks. My ongoing agitation stems from how our community is handling the issues surrounding fracking and the apparent apathy of so many of our neighbors. It would certainly be much easier to live in blissful ignorance of oil/gas operations in Erie. And I wish I could rest easy with the knowledge that our town leadership will fight to protect the health, safety, and property values of Erie citizens. Yet thus far, I am underwhelmed with our Board of Trustees’ overall progress in MOU negotiations. I hope they ultimately prove me wrong.
This past week, I read an interesting op-ed article in the New York Times, questioning moral truths. NY Times Opinion article link The author, Justin P. McBrayer of Durango, CO, discusses how the new “common core” educational system instructs students to define fact vs. opinion. He writes that by common core standards, a fact is something that can be proven. He then goes on to argue that this is an oversimplification of the definition; after all something can be true, and therefore a fact, even if we cannot prove it yet.
That line of reasoning has had me thinking: how much “proof” will it take to the tip the scales and have a majority of people believe that oil/gas drilling and fracking poses significant health risks, especially when it is located so close to people’s homes? What will it take for there to be a shift from “opinion” to “fact”?
As I scan the Facebook posts from the skeptics who side with those who argue that there is no data linking fracking to ill health effects, I’ve been doing my own PubMed searches. Specifically, I have been looking for published, peer-reviewed scientific articles related to fracking. And in my search, I found that there is already a beautifully organized list of articles on a website for the group TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange). The group was founded by a PhD who specialized in the biology of hormone disruption secondary to chemical exposure. Here’s a link to the fracking related articles: Peer Reviewed Articles Natural Gas Operations
One of the articles that caught my attention reports on an air-quality study performed right here in Erie, CO in 2013. Link to Article on Oil and Gas Emissions in Northeastern Colorado. This study (Thompson, CR 2014) was conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and involved air sample collection in East Erie (Weld County), West Erie (Boulder County) and Longmont from March-June 2013. The aim of the study was to measure levels of non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs), which are known precursors to ozone. There is substantial explanation within the article of the different kinds of NMHCs, and which are ones are primarily derived from oil and gas operations vs. vehicle exhaust, fires, etc. (If you want to sort through that, I suggest you read the article in full.) The levels of NMHCs in the Erie/Longmont sampling were also compared to background levels (established in previous studies) in Denver and Platteville.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider what the above article found regarding benzene, a known carcinogen, linked to oil and gas operations:
“The mean value for benzene measured at residences in Erie/Longmont was 0.57 ppbv, which is equivalent to 2.0 µg/m3.”
Okay, so benzene levels near Erie/Longmont residences was 2.0ug/m3. What does that mean, and why should we care? Well, the authors go on to explain the following:
“As defined by the World Health Organization and the U.S. EPA, lifetime exposure to benzene of 1.7 µg/m3 increases one’s risk of cancer to 1 in 100,000 (EPA, 2013; WHO, 2010). Thus, the mean benzene levels in Platteville and Erie are above this threshold and therefore of a high enough concentration for the potential of detrimental health effects if chronic exposure at these levels should occur.”
Apparently if we choose to spend a lifetime in Erie, we may increase our risk of cancer substantially. That’s a sobering thought.
Another salient point the article makes relates to Northern Colorado’s struggle to achieve better air quality. Much of Northern Colorado has been in violation of the National Air Quality Standard and was subsequently listed as a Federal Non-attainment Area since 2007. As a result, the Colorado Department of Public Health imposed tougher restrictions on volatile organic compound emissions produced by oil/gas development in 2008. (I should add that they have also focused on vehicle emissions). Yet despite these efforts, the study (Thompson CR, 2014) concludes that NMHC emissions have not decreased:
“Our initial look at past studies in the region suggests that the ambient NMHC mole fractions in this region have not decreased in recent years despite tightening of emissions standards in the O&NG industries and implementation of statewide vehicle emission inspections, although again we note that these past studies were not exactly co-located, and thus this comparison is not ideal. This observation, however, is highly significant for the NFR, as the State of Colorado continues to face issues related to non-attainment for ozone, and is currently pursuing a further tightening of regulations with the aim of capturing 95% of NMHC emissions. Even though the volume of emissions per well may be decreasing, the rapid and continuing increase in the number of wells may potentially negate any real improvements to the air quality situation. These findings, and the continuing development of this region, provide a strong argument for the continued atmospheric monitoring of this region in the coming years.”
Two things come to mind when I read that concluding paragraph. The first is the ridiculous commercial that is constantly on TV: the one with the banjo/bluegrass type music in the background, and the soccer mom who tells us that she is proud to say that she worked on the methane regulations, and they are the toughest in the country — so we should “breathe easy”. I think the reason that we have some of the toughest methane regulations in the country is because our air quality is already so poor, that WE WERE FORCED TO HAVE TOUGHER REGULATIONS. The second thing that comes to mind, is really a question of how are we going to achieve better air quality to meet the standards? The short term answer is, we are not. In fact, here’s a recent document outlining excuse after excuse of why Colorado should not have to meet the federal ozone standards: Colorado Ozone Failure
Ozone is bad for our health. Benzene is bad for our health. These are substantiated facts — not opinions.
Epidemiological studies conducted over a span of 10-20 years (maybe more) will ultimately connect the dots between the oil and gas industry, multiple pollutants, and disease. Should we wait for that data before we take action?
I hope more people will wake up and stop drinking the company kool aid.