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With the release of a new study yesterday, Colorado regulators have finally confirmed what local residents, Earthworks, and numerous scientists (including at the Colorado School of Public Health) have asserted for years: oil and gas operations near homes and communities puts human health at risk. 

The oil and gas boom nationwide has provided ample research opportunities for scientists, yielding dozens of peer-reviewed studies that consider links between pollution released by operations and health effects in the last several years. Most research points in the same direction: living near oil and gas is a hazard, and the closer you are the greater the risk to your health. As all this science has evolved, more and more people have been forced to live with the very real threat of oil and gas impacts

The new, multi-year, peer-reviewed study, issued by the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment (CDPHE), adds significantly to the health risk picture by “connecting the dots” between contaminants released from oil and gas operations and the potential exposure to people. Its overall conclusion is that the risk of negative health impacts–such as respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, and dizziness–is elevated for residents up to 2000 feet away. 

In typical fashion, industry was quick to cry foul,  issuing a statement that the study findings were erroneous because only “data, facts, and science” should be used to judge risk; and that Colorado regulators should conduct “actual air monitoring in the future, which is what should be used when developing policy and regulations.”

Interestingly, this attempt at reality-denial reinforces data, facts, and science and the need for air monitoring in oil and gas areas. The data, facts, and science are: 

  • The data upon which the CDPHE study relied were actually gathered from sites during different stages of operations.
  • The facts, or conclusion of the study, show that oil and gas operations pose health risks at a distance up to 2000 feet.
  • Modeling is a common, accepted scientific practice with which governments frequently make decisions regarding public health, air quality, and other critical issues.

On the need for actual air monitoring in oil and gas areas, researchers and advocates have long agreed–and Earthworks has long called on regulators to do this as a result of our health-related work. Actual air monitoring is precisely what’s needed to gauge what residents experience on a daily basis, including episodic emission events that can quickly cause intense health impacts and exposure to a cocktail of mixed toxic pollutants

Ironically, it is in this argument against the study that industry must have forgotten that Colorado state regulators rely on emission estimates and averages submitted by operators (not actual air monitoring) for the purpose of securing permits to pollute. As Earthworks has found, there is a striking difference between operators and regulators alike frequently claiming that “everything is operating normally” and the visual evidence of toxic pollution that we’ve documented on the ground (such as here, here, and here).

For all these reasons, it is positive that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has committed to conducting site-specific air monitoring and gauging the potential health impacts of operations closer than 2000 feet from buildings. While this critical work is being done, the state should halt permitting for any new drilling activity or air permits within 2000 feet of any place where people live, work, play, and learn. That is the only way to continue to understand the impacts of oil and gas–while giving residents some much-needed breathing room and allowing time to prevent problems from growing ever-worse.

Post by Nathalie Eddie (neddy@earthworks.org) and Nadia Steinzor (nsteinzor@earthworks.org)