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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Colorado Ahead Of Peers In Charting The Public's Oil And Gas Health Complaints

Jim Hill
A drilling operation with a nearby subdivision in the background near Mead, Colo., pictured in August 2012.

Energy boom states in the west are taking different tactics for recording and responding to public health complaints regarding oil and gas.

Colorado has the most comprehensive reporting in the region. Complaints are posted to a public website with a database that tracks well inspections, spills, remediation and what comes in from the public.

North Dakota has been tracking these concerns as well, starting in early 2014. However, that data is not readily available to the public.

Wyoming doesn't track any of this stuff yet.

Back in Colorado, over half of the total complaints about oil and gas concern groundwater, excessive noise, and air quality. Many of those complaints come to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“We do not get very many complaints that you would categorize specifically as a health complaint,” said COGCC Director Matt Lepore. “It’s usually potential health associated with some other kind of complaint.”

Eric Ewing lives near Gilcrest, in Weld County, Colorado, with his wife and two young children. It’s an area surrounded by drilling activity. He said sometimes, when the wind is low, the air gets socked in and his family has been experiencing nausea, sore throats, dizziness, and rashes.

Ewing said it was difficult to find out how to file health complaints with the state. Some issues needed to be filed with the COGCC, others with the health department or county planners. Once he figured out the system, Ewing was generally satisfied with Colorado’s response.

“My impression is that they’re working very hard,” he said, “and they’re working very long hours to try to address some of these issues.”

But there is still a lot that’s unknown about these health impacts.

Lisa McKenzie, with the Colorado School of Public Health, has been researching the health effects of oil and gas development in human populations for the past four years.

She said the problems the Ewing family has are common and some of her preliminary research may show a connection between exposure to oil and gas emissions and higher cancer risks for children or a connection with higher rates of congenital heart defects. These studies are still early in the process, still limited.

McKenzie said what she’s missing is baseline data: what was the air quality, water quality and health of the population was like before oil and gas development. She also said studies are needed which follow and track populations of people and study their health changes over time.

Two eastern states, Maryland and New York, are both funding public health impact studies. In Colorado, there are two large-scale air quality studies going on. They are funded by the state from money generated through oil and gas revenues and are ongoing.

The state also monitors cancer rates and birth defects, but has so far found no link connecting those rates with oil and gas development.

In the meantime, Eric Ewing has taken his family to their primary doctor, and they've now been referred to a toxicologist.

A woman from the Colorado health department did visit his home once. Ewing said she mentioned something about wishing she could wear a respirator when she came out to Weld Country, because of her own worries about the emissions.

That stuck with Ewing. “So I’m standing there, I've got a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old and my wife inside and I’m like ‘what am I supposed to do? Just leave?’”

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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