Big Oil, Bad Air

Published — October 30, 2014

Five-state study finds high levels of airborne chemicals near oil and gas sites

Produced water discharge canal and pump jacks in an oil field in Hot Springs County, Wyoming. Courtesy of Deb Thomas, ShaleTest


Dirk DeTurck had a years-old rash that wouldn’t go away, his wife’s hair came out in chunks and any time they lingered outside their house for more than an hour, splitting headaches set in.

They were certain the cause was simply breathing the air in Greenbrier, Arkansas, the rural community to which they’d retired a decade ago. They blamed the gas wells all around them. But state officials didn’t investigate.

So DeTurck leapt at the chance to help with research that posed a pressing question: What’s in the air near oil and gas production sites?

The answer — in many of the areas monitored for the peer-reviewed study, published today in the journal Environmental Health — is “potentially dangerous compounds and chemical mixtures” that can make people feel ill and raise their risk of cancer.

“The implications for health effects are just enormous,” said David O. Carpenter, the paper’s senior author and director of the University at Albany’s Institute for Health and the Environment.

In 40 percent of the air samples, laboratory tests found benzene, formaldehyde or other toxic substances associated with oil and gas production above levels the federal government considers safe for brief or longer-term exposure, according to the study. Far above, in some cases.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America referred questions about the study to Energy In Depth, an outreach campaign it launched in 2009. Energy In Depth spokeswoman Katie Brown criticized the involvement of Global Community Monitor, a nonprofit that trained DeTurck and other volunteers to gather the samples.

“It’s difficult to see how Global Community Monitor, a group that dubiously claims no amount of regulation will ever make fracking safe, could make a constructive contribution within the scientific community,” Brown said by email.

The study monitored air at locations in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

It comes amid a growing body of research suggesting that the country’s ballooning oil and gas production — cheek-by-jowl with homes and schools — could be endangering the health of people nearby. The Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News have been investigating this topic, mostly in the Eagle Ford Shale formation of South Texas, for the past 18 months.

A Yale University study released in September found that Pennsylvania residents living less than two-thirds of a mile from natural-gas wells were much more likely to report skin and upper-respiratory problems than people living farther away.

A Colorado School of Public Health analysis published in April found 30 percent more congenital heart defects in babies born to mothers in gas-well-intensive parts of that state than to mothers with no wells within 10 miles of their homes.

And a 2013 study for the state of West Virginia found benzene, a carcinogen, above levels considered safe by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry near four of seven gas well pads where air was sampled.

The findings come after years of little information beyond citizen complaints and industry reassurances. Scientists say the research is far from complete and more is urgently needed.

Researchers associated with the Yale and Colorado studies, for instance, noted that their findings don’t prove that gas production caused the health problems, but instead flag a potential link that needs further investigation.

“Research is just now beginning, really, to be done,” said Michael McCawley, interim chair of West Virginia University’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences and author of the study for that state.

“Part of the problem seems to be a concerted effort, up until recently, to avoid asking the question,” said environmental physician Bernard D. Goldstein, a faculty emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh who served as an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official during the Reagan administration.

The beginning of a shift is under way.

The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says it is supporting nine studies in progress, from an analysis of asthma near shale gas sites to an examination of local residents’ health before, during and after a multi-well pad is developed. The agency is also conducting its own studies on chemical exposures that could be an issue for gas-extraction workers and people living near such sites.

The industry has been largely dismissive of the research already released.

“We have not seen credible studies showing natural gas production causes health effects,” Dan Whitten, a spokesman for trade group America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said by email. “Obviously, we are sympathetic to anyone with health concerns. Our members remain committed to the development of natural gas in a safe and responsible manner.”

The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But McCawley, with West Virginia University, said the industry group alerted researchers this summer that it would be funding a health-effects study.

Doug and ‘Genie McMullan take tedlar bag samples during the study’s air-monitoring effort. The site is at a permitted discharge point for a produced water discharge canal on McMullan’s ranch. The produced water is being discharged from oil wells in Park County, Wyoming. Courtesy of Deb Thomas, ShaleTest

Waste pits on a gas pad in Park County, Wyoming. Courtesy of Deb Thomas, ShaleTest

Teaming scientists with citizens

For the new Environmental Health study, academics teamed with Global Community Monitor — a group founded 13 years ago that developed a method for residents in neglected neighborhoods to sample their own air — and volunteers it trained.

It’s an unusual setup for a peer-reviewed study, but that was by design, said Carpenter of the University at Albany. Deploying residents allowed for quick monitoring in places where they suspected something was wrong, based on bad odors, symptoms such as nausea or other problems.

Energy In Depth, which has criticized other studies looking at potential health effects near oil and gas production, focused on Global Community Monitor rather than the findings.

“Their founder has even admitted that, in their activism, science takes a back seat to ‘organizing,’” Brown said by email. “For groups financed by the same foundations that fund GCM, that all may be something to dismiss or ignore, but for those of us interested in actually understanding development better – and not just creative ways to undermine the safety record of hydraulic fracturing – it’s important that we focus on science, not activism.”

Denny Larson, Global Community Monitor’s founder and executive director, said by email that he believes science “should be purpose driven to discover the truth.”

“It’s clear that the oil and gas industry wants to use the same tired strategies to discredit sound science just as the tobacco companies did in the past,” he said.

The study’s sampling was done as a snapshot — air at one moment in time, or in the case of formaldehyde, over the course of at least eight hours. Carpenter said that’s not how states have typically handled their own monitoring, the results of which have suggested little cause for alarm or weren’t detailed enough to determine whether a health risk existed.

By averaging the results over days, weeks or months, state monitors risk missing the sporadic emission spikes that can harm exposed people, he said.

“Our results indicate that the longer-term monitoring misses peak concentrations, which may be very important,” Carpenter said.

Toxic substances in 20 percent of the 76 samples taken for the study exceeded safe levels for brief exposure while another 20 percent exceeded standards for longer-term exposure. The study authors said they thought both were appropriate comparisons in part because residents picked areas to sample where odors and health complaints were common.

Gregg P. Macey, one of the study’s co-authors, said he sees its value less in the specific findings — though he called them “troubling” — than in the roadmap the research offers.

“The key takeaway is we really need to start sampling at the scales dictated by community concerns, the same concerns that are sometimes lodged in county and state agencies as complaints but that are experienced daily,” said Macey, an associate law professor at Brooklyn Law School whose area of expertise includes environmental regulation.

The study sampled air near a mix of sites, including compressor stations, production pads and condensate tank farms. Some but not all of the sampling sites were associated with hydraulic fracturing.

The technique, known as fracking, has opened the floodgates on once-trapped oil and gas in recent years by pummeling rock with a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals.

Industry groups have pointed to the boom as an economic godsend: jobs, cheaper energy, payments to landowners and taxes for state coffers. Many public officials in those states — both Republicans and Democrats — see it that way, too.

When the EPA indicated to Wyoming officials in 2011 that fracking had likely contaminated groundwater near the tiny community of Pavillion, the reaction was horror — over the potential impact on fracking.

Thomas E. Doll, then the state’s oil and gas supervisor, testified on Capitol Hill several months later that Wyoming received about $2 billion in taxes and royalties during fiscal year 2010 from oil and natural gas work. Almost all of that was connected to fracking, and he blasted the EPA for what he called the “questionable” science of its nearly three-year review.

“The EPA conclusion that hydraulic fracturing caused ground water contamination is limited to the data found in a single sample detect from [a] single monitoring well,” said Doll, the governor’s representative at the hearing, in written testimony to the House subcommittees on energy and the environment. “Yet this fact is lost in the public reaction to EPA’s announcement and results in a worldwide damnation of hydraulic fracturing.”

Doll resigned in 2012 after saying Pavillion-area residents pressing for action on their water wells were largely motivated by “greed.” But after a year and a half of sustained political pressure over its draft review, EPA turned the investigation over to the state. That work is funded by Encana, the energy company residents accused of contaminating the water.

A spokesman for Encana said it provided the money because “there was no one else stepping forward to provide funding for a study that needed to be done.”

“We certainly have a stake in this in a sense that we firmly believe this was not due to our operations,” said the spokesman, Doug Hock. “This is an area that has had … naturally occurring, historically poor water quality.”

Discharge canal from a produced water impoundment in Park County, Wyoming. Courtesy of Deb Thomas, ShaleTest

EPA spokesman Rich Mylott said the agency stands by the work it did in Pavillion “but recognized the state’s commitment to additional investigation to advance the understanding of groundwater quality in the area.”

A draft report of the first stage of the state’s examination, released in August, said there is no evidence tying gas wells to the fouled water. Two other avenues of investigation continue.

Jerimiah L. Rieman, Wyoming’s natural resource policy director, acknowledged that the state is highly dependent on oil and gas development for revenue, but he said officials truly want to know what caused problems in Pavillion. The state won kudos from the Environmental Defense Fund a year ago when it set new rules requiring oil and gas operators to collect water samples before and after drilling.

“Long after our minerals are gone, we’d better have water to survive,” Rieman said.

Pressing for air monitoring

What drove people to help with the five-state air emissions study — in Wyoming and elsewhere — was a deep suspicion that their state governments were failing to protect public health.

Deb Thomas, who spent years working as a community organizer on pollution matters in Wyoming, said concerns about air followed in the wake of water worries. People told her they’d lost their sense of smell and taste. She heard complaints of headaches and breathing problems, along with reports of miscarriages, neuropathy, unusual cancers and autoimmune diseases.

Starting in 2007, she pressed for state air monitoring in Pavillion. The state brought in a mobile monitor designed primarily to measure ozone, not the specific types and amounts of harmful volatile organic compounds that might be in the air.

Keith Guille, a spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, said volatiles are a contributor to ozone. A year of monitoring found no ozone problems, he said.

Thomas, then at the conservation-focused Powder River Basin Resource Council, was not satisfied.

“We knew people were getting really sick, and more and more data started coming out about air issues, and the state refused to do any real testing,” said Thomas, 60, now director of ShaleTest, an environmental data-collection nonprofit based in Texas. “And so we decided we would start doing some testing ourselves.”

She called Global Community Monitor. The group told her about a study just getting under way. Would she like to participate?

Thomas rounded up people to collect samples in four areas and ended up as a co-author. The study found many of the Wyoming samples contained volatile organic compounds above safe levels — particularly hydrogen sulfide, a naturally occurring gas that can be unleashed by drilling and can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and, in sufficient concentrations, death.

Deborah Sonderman (left) and Deb Thomas take tedlar bag samples at a gas pad in Park County, Wyoming, during the study’s air-monitoring effort. Courtesy of Deb Thomas, ShaleTest

She expected to find problems in Pavillion. What startled her were the results around her own town, Clark, where tests on the air samples showed high levels of benzene, a chemical that can be emitted by oil and gas production.

The worst case was 110,000 micrograms per cubic meter of air, 12,000 times above the safe level for brief exposure set by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. Several other Wyoming samples also tested high for benzene, though far lower than the worst case.

A 2006 blowout at a gas well near Clark got her seriously concerned about air problems — Thomas ended up in the emergency room a few days later with her first and only asthmatic episode. But she said she didn’t expect much in the way of dangerous compounds there years later.

“In the area where I live, there’s only six wells producing right now … and they’re very low producers,” Thomas said. “I thought, ‘Oh, we’re not going to find anything here because there’s not much going on.’ And then it was off the charts.”

In desperate search of data

In Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County, six of the air samples shipped off for testing contained high levels of formaldehyde, classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. All were taken near compressor stations, which pressurize natural gas so it can flow through pipelines. Formaldehyde can be a byproduct of the facilities’ engines.

Breathe Easy Susquehanna County coordinated the local sampling. Rebecca Roter founded the grassroots group last year to lobby gas companies for better pollution controls, and she knew data would be critical. Air sampling the state had done in her county struck her as woefully inadequate.

“It was too late for a baseline, because we’re seven years into shale development in Susquehanna County, so we were desperately trying to do what we could to document anything,” said Roter, 53, who lives in Brooklyn, Pennsylvania. “The best way to have a real discussion about what’s really happening is to have the facts.”

Three years ago, the first time she smelled a bad odor drifting from a compressor station several miles from her home, she filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. When a field agent got back to her a week later, she said, the smell was gone and he wasn’t interested — an experience she said has proved typical in the state even though not all chemicals and gases have an odor.

“The field rep said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t smell, it’s a dead end,’” Roter said. “And he accused me of driving around to find smells.”

Colleen Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said agency employees recall an inspector going to Roter’s home and noticing no odor, but they haven’t been able to locate the complaint record.

The state has air monitoring units in two towns, one of which is in Roter’s county, that take air samples once a week near compressor stations, Connolly said. The agency doesn’t monitor near gas wells except after complaints.

“It is up to the individual gas company to monitor for VOC … emissions [and] report those findings to DEP,” she said by email.

Emily G. Lane, an Arkansas graduate student who helped with the air monitoring there, hopes the emissions study will spur her state to do its own monitoring at all oil and gas sites. A top official at the state Department of Environmental Quality agreed to meet with her about the findings if they were published in a scientific journal, she said.

She wishes the air-sample results themselves — available in March — were reason enough for the state to look more closely. They showed high levels of formaldehyde.

Katherine Benenati, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, said the agency is happy to review outside data once completed — peer review included.

When the state agency did its own gas-site monitoring in 2010 and 2011, it measured total volatile organic compounds but not the individual types or amounts. That made it impossible for the researchers to say whether any posed a hazard.

“Future studies should monitor air quality with instruments that can detect lower concentrations of pollutants and identify individual VOC compounds to determine if the emissions from gas sites are potentially harmful to public health and welfare,” the report concluded.

No follow-up studies have been launched in the three years since, the environmental quality agency said, and none are planned.

“The statement in the executive summary is an indication of a limitation of the data that was gathered in the study,” Benenati said in an email. “It was not meant to suggest that additional data gathering was being recommended.”

DeTurck, the Arkansas retiree, has his own take on that: “There’s no problem if you never really look for it.”

He said he and other residents spent three years asking state officials to do something in Greenbrier. The state shut down injection wells blamed for setting off more than a thousand small earthquakes in his county, but that was it, he said.

“The state’s all-in on this industry,” said DeTurck, 59. “One legislator … told me to my face, ‘If you don’t like it, move, because that’s the future.’”

DeTurck followed that advice, though it took three years to find a buyer. He and wife Eva moved 12 miles south in December. Given the direction the winds blow there, they figured that was enough distance to get cleaner air.

Dirk DeTurck said his wife’s hair loss, ringing in the ears and headaches stopped within two weeks. His rash cleared up several months later, and his other symptoms dissipated, too, he said.

“I don’t miss those headaches and nosebleeds and the rash and the smell — the putrid smell,” he said. “Every morning, every night.”

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