Experts discuss health impacts of oil, gas drilling

Page 4 • Tuesday, September 29, 2020 • Sublette Examiner

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CHEYENNE – A pair of public health

experts spoke on the effects of oil and gas

drilling development in Wyoming and

Colorado during a locally organized panel


Thursday’s virtual panel, which was

put on by the Cheyenne Area Landowners

Coalition, featured Lisa McKenzie, an assistant

professor at the Colorado School of

Public Health, and Robert Field, a senior

research scientist at the University of Wyoming.

Although their views contrasted on some

points, the two experts agreed on an overarching

takeaway: The effects of oil and

gas development on nearby air quality are

real and, at times, concerning.

“(There are) a lot of studies now on selfreported

complaints of nosebleeds, dizziness,

migraines, headaches and skin rashes

for people living particularly close to oil

and gas well sites,” said McKenzie. “And

then ... asthma, congenital heart defects,

low birth weights, preterm birth, cardiovascular

disease indicators, people with

these conditions are more likely to be living

nearer the oil and gas well sites than further

away from them.”

McKenzie, who has been a lead researcher

on the impacts of oil and gas activity

in northern Colorado, said there are still

gaps in the research that need to be filled,

but she said most epidemiological studies

have arrived at similar conclusions.

“I would remind you of how long it took

to establish that smoking cigarettes causes

lung cancer,” she added.

In Laramie County, oil and gas development

has grown substantially over the past

decade, though drilling activity slowed

statewide in recent months due to the

COVID-19 pandemic and commodity price

drops. The county also recently lost its mobile

air-quality monitoring station, leaving

just one station in northern Cheyenne to

monitor any chemical presence in the area.

Field, whose current work focuses on

defining baseline air quality conditions in

Carbon County, said the chemical byproducts

of drilling, such as benzene, aren’t as

easy for nearby landowners to detect as

other particles.

“We can look out the window, and we

can see the smoke, for example, at the moment,

but one of our problems is when we

deal with toxic air pollutants that may be invisible,

odorless and tasteless,” said Field.

In Wyoming, state rules require new

wells to be offset at least 500 feet from any

occupied structure, but both panelists were

wary of any setback distance of less than

2,000 feet.

McKenzie pointed to two studies, one of

which she led and another from the Colorado

Department of Public Health and Environment,

that have shown some slight

potential for health risks related to oil and

gas development.

“Both the studies have found that acute,

short-term health risks begin to increase at

approximately 2,000 feet from oil and gas

well sites, and rapidly increase as that distance

becomes shorter,” McKenzie said.

“These health risks are driven by those exposures

to benzene and alkanes.”

The report from the Colorado Department

of Public Health and Environment,

however, produced mixed results. It found

acute exposures to most chemicals did not

reach concerning levels for people nearby,

though researchers found exposure to a few

chemicals, including benzene, could exceed

health guidelines at a 500-foot distance

under some worst-case scenarios.

“Our identification of these estimated

exceedances of acute health guidelines is

highly conservative, in that these highestestimated

exposures occur when the highest

chemical emissions are highly concentrated

by ‘worst-case’ meteorological conditions

onto a hypothetical person who is outdoors

or in a highly ventilated area, which might

happen only rarely,” states the report.

While the department’s study considered

some worst-case scenarios, the panelists

were wary of any situation in which a

person’s home is close to oil and gas wells.

“I personally would prefer to see no oil

and gas wells in residential areas,” Field

said. “If they are there, then the 2,000-foot

setback is, for me, an absolute must.”

While critical of some development,

Field also praised the Wyoming Department

of Environmental Quality for its

air-quality monitoring network, which he

called one of the best nationwide, though

he noted a difference between “regulatory”

and “scientific” monitoring processes.

“The point I would like to make is just

because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s OK;

just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s

safe,” he said. “There’s always a compromise

when we’re thinking about economic

activity and environmental protection.”

Experts discuss health impacts of oil, gas drilling

By Tom Coulter, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Via Wyoming News Exchange



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