Study Finds Toxins, Cancer-Causing Air Pollution at Oil, Gas Wells

Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile / This valve on a gas tank near the town of Pavillion, Wyoming, is an example of a source for potential leaks. A new study indicates dangerous toxins are present at oil and gas facilities near homes and communities.

Reprinted with permission from WyoFile. This story first ran on October 30, 2014.

A cadre of citizens taking air samples for a scientific study has found toxic emissions from Wyoming oil and gas operations, some that are many, many times above federal health standards.

In a six-state study published in Environmental Health, authors say the Wyoming samples show high concentrations of benzene, hydrogen sulfide, formaldehyde and more. Air samples taken in 13 of 15 sites in Park and Fremont counties exceeded the standards, prompting a call to action.

Deb Thomas of Clark, one of the co-authors of the study, said residents close to increasing oil and gas developments are in peril and have been abandoned by government watchdogs. She is a director of the group ShaleTest, and formerly worked with the Wyoming-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council.

“They’re fighting for their lives,” she said. “Fracking not only fractures rock it fractures communities.”

Natural gas facilities intermingle with ranching and farming northeast of Pavillion, where groundwater contamination has drawn focus on hydraulic fracturing. Residents here also suspect air emissions from oil and gas facilities contribute to illnesses. (Photo: Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The groups Coming Clean and Global Community Monitor announced the results today, saying, “The natural gas industry often claims that it provides ‘cheap energy,’ but we are paying the price with the endangerment of public health.” While reports of illnesses are not tied scientifically to oil and gas field emissions, the groups called for protection before severe harm occurs to the environment and people.

Neighbors to oil and gas facilities suffer from headaches, rashes, loss of smell and taste, nosebleeds, neuropathy, kidney problems, pain, miscarriages and cancers, Thomas said. “People who are very eloquent can’t form their words any more,” she said of some effects.

Citizen researchers trained to federal standards collected bags of air and used other methods to sample the atmosphere near oil and gas operations where horizontal drilling and fracking was involved. Many were residents of areas affected by energy development and they collected the samples when they saw, smelled or heard emissions coming from oil and gas field machinery. Sometimes headaches or other symptoms believed associated with emissions prompted them to collect.

The samples were compared against standards set by the U.S. Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Seven samples, all from Wyoming, contained hydrogen sulfide in concentrations ranging from more than twice to 660 times the level classified by the EPA as immediately dangerous to human life,” the groups said in announcing the paper. The groups produced a companion publication “Warning Signs” (embedded below) that details results of the study in layman’s terms.

“One Wyoming sample contained formaldehyde exceeding EPA’s “most hazardous cancer level,” the groups said.

Hexane, a nerve toxin, occurred at seven Wyoming sites, one time measured at 7,000 times OSHA’s minimal risk level. Four sites produced samples containing the carcinogen benzene and five contained nerve toxins toluene and xylene at levels higher than short- or long-term health guidelines, the groups said.

“In Wyoming, multiple samples with high benzene concentrations were taken on residential property 30–350 yards from the nearest well, or on farmland along the perimeter of a well pad,” the research paper said. “The results suggest that existing regulatory setback distances from wells to residences may not be adequate to reduce human health risks.”

Those residents have been abandoned by their governments, Thomas said.

“We asked the State of Wyoming for years to address these issues,” she said. “We didn’t get much response. Wyoming officials continue to say we have some of the cleanest air in the country.”

She pointed to the influence oil and gas has on the Wyoming economy, where mineral revenues preclude the need for a state income tax.

“We continue to hear about the economic benefits,” Thomas said. “Nobody wants to kill that golden goose. Nobody will address what it’s going to cost to clean up this mess.

“Industry and the state are making all the money,” she said. “The people who are living with [this] suffer the consequences—they’re left holding the bag.”

An EPA study of contamination in Pavillion water wells was turned over to the state with no subsequent results, Thomas said.

“We’re really getting nowhere,” she said. “Those folks are still living in a community with serious groundwater contamination and now they’re also getting creamed by air emissions.”

Louis Meeks at home near the town of Pavillion, with neighbor John Fenton. Both Meeks and Fenton suspect airborne emissions from oil and gas facilities have contributed to illnesses in their families, but little has been done to research a possible connection. (Photo: Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

David Carpenter of the Institute for Health and the Environment, University at Albany, Rensselaer, New York, was the lead author of the peer-reviewed scientific paper. The research marks the first time citizens were trained to do widespread air monitoring of oil and gas facilities and their work extended from Arkansas to Colorado, Ohio Pennsylvania, New York and Wyoming.

Two of the compounds found in the air “in extraordinary concentrations” are benzene, which causes liver cancer and leukemia, and formaldehyde, “basically an embalming fluid… a carcinogen,” Carpenter said in a telephone news conference. “Our concern is these carcinogens (are) near homes, schools, farms—the people exposed are going to be a risk for developing cancer, but only in the future.”

Such delays make it difficult to blame a particular source, he said. The oil and gas industry is largely exempt from federal environmental regulations for clean air and water, he said.

“We must apply the same rules to the oil and gas industry that we apply to other industries,” Carpenter said. “It’s ridiculous that there’s so much leaking at these sites.”

Human Health Concerns

In Sublette County, the Wyoming Department of Health last year reported an association between increased ozone levels and clinic visits. Ozone pollution, believed to be caused by oil and gas operations, snow cover, car exhausts, sunlight and other factors, has been measured there at levels higher than in Los Angeles.

The increased clinic visits came during a four-year period between 2008-2011. Clinic visits for respiratory problems were up 3 percent for every 10 parts-per-billion increase of ground-level ozone detected.

Agency director Thomas Forslund penned the report “Associations of Short-Term Exposure to Ozone and Respiratory Outpatient Clinic Visits—Sublette County, Wyoming, 2008–2011.” The clinic visits came when additional pollution increased ozone levels that were already between 19 and 84 parts per billion.

In Wyoming, county-based public health offices are typically the first to hear of a potential public health threat. If they suspect one, they coordinate with the Wyoming Department of Health (DOH).

Agency spokeswoman Kim Deti said people sometimes contact Wyoming DOH directly if they suspect an illness due an industrial facility or activity.

“We don’t necessarily have an ongoing tracking mechanism,” Deti said on Wednesday. “But if we were to identify a cluster (of complaints) that would indicate a public health threat, then we’d follow up on them.

“We’ve had calls and inquiries related to the refinery in Newcastle, and that was looked at,” she said. “People thought they had a much higher rate of cancer, but they didn’t.”

“It’s difficult because sometimes (an illness) takes place over a long period of time,” Deti said. “Another problem is often times the sample size is so small it makes it difficult to study.”

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has authority over most aspects of emissions from oil and gas operations. When it receives complaints of potential rogue emissions and suspected illness, DEQ shares the information with the state’s health department, DEQ spokesman Keith Guille told WyoFile via email.

“We use to get more questions concerning health in the Upper Green during the years of higher ozone levels,” Guille said. “However, those studies and information are all handled through Department of Health.”

Doug Hock is spokesman for Encana Oil & Gas USA, which was the main developer of the Jonah gas field south of Pinedale until it sold the property earlier this year. Encana is still owner and operator of the Pavillion gas field, most known for questions surrounding contaminated drinking water.

Hock told WyoFile on Wednesday that the company hears many anecdotal claims about suspected illnesses related to its operations throughout North America.

“Yes, there are many anecdotal claims made but very little research,” he said in an email response. “When health impact studies have been undertaken, they’ve often failed to take into consideration the multiple factors beyond oil and gas development that influence health in a particular community.”

In the citizen research, those collecting samples were instructed not to take them when there was traffic nearby or other activity or sources that could taint the sample.

Hock continued; “the bottom line is that such studies are complex and difficult to undertake, but more information and data is certainly needed to move us beyond the unscientific realm of anecdote.”

Encana will follow up when somebody complains of illness suspected as a result of the company’s operations.

“Direct complaints about health are rare,” Hock said. “In such cases we take operational precautions to ensure that we’re meeting environmental and health standards. Also, we encourage people who believe they have a health issue to consult their physician.”

Reform advocates call pollution and lack of regulation a civil rights issue, with many people seeing drilling forced upon them. Poor or disadvantaged residents don’t have the ability to simply pack up and move, they said.

“What we are leaning toward with this project is building a movement … to reform the oil and gas industry, which by the numbers needs serious reform,” said Denny Larson, director of Global Community Monitor.

“What we are leaning toward with this project is building a movement … to reform the oil and gas industry, which by the numbers needs serious reform,” said Denny Larson, director of Global Community Monitor.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He began working at the Jackson Hole News in 1978, and was editor of the Jackson Hole News and Jackson Hole News&Guide before joining WyoFile. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307) 690-5586. Follow him @AngusThuermer.

Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. He has covered energy and natural resource issues in Wyoming for 15 years. You can reach him at (307) 267-3327 or email dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter at @DBleizeffer.

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