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'Close Encounters' With Gas Well Pollution

Living in the middle of a natural gas boom can be pretty unsettling. The area around the town of Silt, Colo., used to be the kind of sleepy rural place where the tweet of birds was the most you would hear. Now it's hard to make out the birds because of the rumbling of natural gas drilling rigs.

The land here is steep cliffs and valleys. But bare splotches of earth called well pads are all over the place.

"That's the one I'm worried about because it just went in," says Tim Ray.

We're on his front porch just after sunset. You can see the lights of drill rigs all around his small house.

"There's actually one up here over the hill that they just put in." He points in another direction: "There's three or four of them up there."

The rigs are lit up like Christmas trees and puffing different colors of smoke. People in Ray's neighborhood feel like the rigs are so close, they call them "Close Encounters."

Companies can drill 20 wells or more at a single site. They come back again and again over the course of years. Each time, there's an onslaught of strange smells. People living near the wells complain about itchy eyes, scratchy throats and getting sick to their stomachs. "I worry about my health. I worry about my kids' health," Ray says.

What's In Those Fumes?

But the truth is, Ray and his other neighbors are guessing. They know almost nothing about what's happening on the well pads around them. They just wonder: What's in those fumes that blow into their yard? What's in that smell?

"Nobody has told us anything about the quality of our air, as far as what we're smelling or anything," Ray says. "I would feel better if I knew that the gases weren't bad."

People are asking these same questions wherever natural gas is being drilled around the United States.

Nearly a decade ago, Garfield County in Colorado started trying to tackle that question, and was chugging ahead of the whole country in pursuit of scientific truth. Local politician Tresi Houpt was the engine pushing that effort.

It pains her that people are still asking the questions that revved her up when she first learned about her county's gas boom while campaigning to be county commissioner.

"There's a great frustration," she says. "I'm hearing the same stories that I heard nine years ago."

Houpt is a Sally Field type, with bangs and all. She speaks softly and deliberately, and wears pressed Carhartt work pants and cowboy boots.

As she started to campaign to be a Garfield County commissioner, she came down from her home on a ski mountain to meet people in ranches, rural neighborhoods with the big blue skies and clear starry nights. She couldn't believe what she saw: drill rigs right outside homes, armadas of diesel-spewing trucks, fumes wafting from equipment called compressors and condensate tanks.

"In Colorado, you can have a drill rig 150 feet from homes. The original thought was if the rig falls, it won't hit the house," she says. She didn't want their rural refuge to be sacrificed to produce energy for the rest of the country.

In Search Of Answers

The current drilling boom started in Colorado around 2000. Just like in Texas, Utah and Pennsylvania, an engineering technique called hydraulic fracturing allowed drillers to tap into rock and unlock previously inaccessible reservoirs of natural gas.

Gas companies drill a well, and then deep below the surface, they perforate the rock with explosives. Next they send a high-pressure mix of sand, water and chemicals down the well shaft to widen up fractures created by the explosives to release the gas in the rock. In Colorado, drillers frack both sandstone and shale.

In 2002, Houpt won her election. And one of the first things she wanted to know was: Did scientists have any answers for what was in the air near wells?

She was shocked to learn that there were no good studies. Not local ones, state ones or studies from the Environmental Protection Agency. Not about Western Colorado gas fields or any others in the United States. The industry wasn't required to measure or report its emissions.

She learned that her county didn't even monitor its air quality, and she set about making it a priority for her county to study its air.

As only one of three commissioners in charge of running the county, Houpt had her work cut out for her. She remembers that other commissioners didn't want to upset an industry that was bringing a lot of jobs and a lot of money to Garfield County.

The same concern was raised when she was on a state panel setting regulations for drilling companies.

"The conversation was always a question about how far we should push the oil and gas industry. It was a question at the county level. It was a question when I was on the oil and gas commission, and we were rewriting the rules," Houpt recalls.

But Houpt and the other commissioners agreed to start spending some of the county's gas royalties to try to get answers. They brought in Jim Rada to create an environmental health office.

Rada was a public health specialist, but he had been working in ski country, where the big public health issues were whether the food in restaurants was safe to eat. "When I got here in 2005, I was definitely flying blind 'cause I didn't even know about the oil and gas industry," Rada says.

First, Collect The Data

He learned fast. Today, while he gives us a tour of gas infrastructure around Garfield County, he can't help using industry jargon.

"There are pipelines, there are storage yards, compressor stations, gas plants," he says, as we drive along in his hybrid SUV past thousands of sources of air pollution.

Diesel exhaust spews from trucks and drilling rigs. Methane, chemicals that make ozone, and fumes that contain cancer-causing benzene leak from wells and storage tanks.

The industry and regulators estimate how pollutants are being emitted, but no one actually samples the air to directly measure the emissions.

These pollution sources are spread out over a huge geographic area, and many of them move around, which adds to the challenge of trying to assess the pollution. "It's like a moving target. The problem jumps from location to location," bemoans Houpt.

Weather patterns affect how long the pollution stays in the air and at what concentrations. Rada figured it would be impossible to track all this pollution, so back in 2005, he set up monitors in towns where most of the people lived.

During our visit, he set up a ladder so we could climb to the top of a building in Rifle, his county's biggest town.

Gadgets on the roof monitor soot, smog and volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs. Years of data from these and other monitors around the county have shown that the industry is putting a lot more chemicals into the air that create smog. But levels of smog and other air pollutants still meet EPA health standards.

But Rada still wanted to know what's in the air breathed by people with front-row seats to the drilling.

So in 2008, he got permission from companies to put air sampling canisters around eight wells that were being drilled. Then, for 24 hours, those canisters captured the chemicals that were coming off the wells.

Now, that seems obvious enough, but nobody else in the country had sampled air that close to wells.

"We were pretty much breaking ground and trying to do the science that needed to be done in order to answer some of these questions," Rada says.

He found very large amounts of chemicals. Some of them, like benzene, can cause cancer. Others, like xylenes, can irritate eyes and lungs.

Rada's air monitoring work was rare enough that it was getting attention at some higher levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Colorado's state public health agency were analyzing his data for answers.

But they didn't really find any. For instance, Rada's eight-well test was just a pilot study. He didn't test the air long enough or at enough places to know how much chemicals people were really being exposed to.

At that point, Rada says the job got too big for him.

"To get to the bottom line and answer that big nagging question of what is this air quality doing to the health of the community — that takes a whole lot more resources than a single county can devote to this," Rada says.

This was 2009. Nearly 3,000 wells had gone in the year before. The county needed help. And its next move turned out to have some pretty painful consequences.

Trying To Connect The Dots

The county moved beyond looking at what was in the air to whether or not the industry was making people sick.

Rada called in the Colorado School of Public Health to examine whether lots of new drilling within a neighborhood might hurt people's health. To make their conclusions, the researchers were supposed to use existing studies, such as the county's monitoring data, and whatever other science they could find.

A draft assessment by the school predicted small increases in risks of cancer, headaches and lung ailments.

"We've done the only study, essentially, that's looked at the health impacts," says John Adgate, who chairs the Colorado School of Public Health. "One of the issues here is that everyone has to agree on what the rules are, i.e., they have to agree to cooperate."

But instead, everyone agrees, politics took over.

People who live near gas wells held up the researchers' work to attack the industry in lawsuits and in the media. And gas companies fought back.

"Both sides were fighting," recalls John Martin, a longtime county commissioner. "They wanted to use this document in both arguments — that it didn't hurt anything and that it killed everyone."

David Ludlam, executive director of the regional industry trade, West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, had frequent conversations with the county commissioners. Ludlam said the researchers were jumping to conclusions by making predictions about health with such a small pool of data.

"The pen you use to create the dotted lines has to have integrity, and we didn't feel that the data that was used did," Ludlam says. "They used what we believe was questionable data, at best. You can't make assumptions about health impacts if you don't have the data to support it."

Adgate stood by his group's work, which has received positive reviews from public health experts around the country.

But Garfield County commissioners felt the situation was getting out of control. Martin says it became a political football for opponents and supporters of drilling. "We said enough is enough, people."

A Polarizing Question

In May of last year, the commissioners gathered for a meeting and voted to end a contract with the Colorado School of Public Health. Tresi Houpt, who had lost her re-election and wasn't part of the vote, saw her years of work unraveling.

"I was stunned," she said. "I was absolutely stunned." All that momentum the county had built up came to a screeching halt. The Colorado School of Public Health and the county tried two more times to fill research gaps, but both of those efforts failed.

And the regional industry group wasn't interested in continuing to work with the Colorado School of Public Health.

"I sent an e-mail indicating that our operators and our organization would be uncomfortable moving forward working with the Colorado School of Public Health," Ludlam recalls, "because things had become so polarized, we didn't think there was a pathway forward."

That was last summer.

Ludlam says the industry is working on a new air pollution study, but with a different research group, Colorado State University's Department of Atmospheric Science. The study will look only at air quality — it won't delve into health. Results are expected in three years.

So, 10 years have passed since Houpt first drove around her county, hearing complaints about air pollution and the gas industry. And Garfield County's 800 gas wells have grown to more than 8,000. People who live near wells — whether they're in Texas, Pennsylvania or Utah — still don't know what they're breathing.

Houpt believes Garfield County's saga shows how politics, industry pressure, technical challenges and the slow pace of science have blocked the search for answers — not just for her community, but for the whole country.

Before we leave Western Colorado, Houpt wants to show us her new focus. We visit her pretty log house on a ski mountain.

She's now trying to stop a gas company from renewing leases to drill on the wooded slope behind her house. Otherwise, she says, "we'll have trucks running up and down this mountain, disturbance on this mountain for 30 years. It's very painful to see."

And all those answers Houpt has been searching for about air quality, she may now need for her own family.

The audio version of this story was produced by Rebecca Davis.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.