May 16, 2013 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

The residents of Battlement Mesa didn’t want their “Colorado Dream” —the community’s slogan—-to turn into their nightmare.  The unincorporated 3,200 acre, residential community offers its 5,000 residents high desert mountain views above the Colorado River, and boasts of opportunities for hiking, birding, golfing, fishing and hunting.   But in 2009, Antero Resources identified the Battlement Mesa locale in Garfield County as a proposed site for 200 natural gas wells.   That move raised concerns among the residents on how hydrofracking projects might change their way of life.  They’d read the news reports about fumes, dust and noise from other communities where natural gas production sites were prevalent.   Could they expect the same?

The residents’ quest for answers took the form of a petition delivered in late 2009 to the Board of County Commissioners of Garfield County, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission.  The residents’ group, called Battlement Concerned Citizens, urged the government officials:

“to defer any permitting decisions related to natural gas exploration and/or production within the Planned Unit Development of Battlement Mesa until a thorough study of public health, safety and welfare concerns associated with urban natural gas development has been completed.”

BCC specifically asked County and State officials to conduct a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) before any special use permit for natural gas exploration and development was approved within the Battlement Mesa community.  BCC had done their research on HIAs, knowing they are a systematic tool for assessing the potential health consequences of a proposed policy, program, or project.  Some of the gas wells would be about 500 feet from homes.

Within a few months, the Garfield County Department of Public Health was collaborating with the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) to develop the HIA.   Funding was provided by Garfield County and a $150,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.  A forthcoming paper in the American Journal of Public Health written by the CSPH team reports the findings of the assessment, and then the fallout.

First the findings.  Based on extensive input from the community and other stakeholders, eight major areas of public health concern were identified:

  • health effects from air emissions
  • water contamination
  • truck traffic
  • noise and light pollution
  • accidents and malfunctions
  • strain on healthcare system
  • psychosocial stress associated with community changes, and
  • housing value depression

Based on the research team’s review of the available data, they concluded that

“air pollutant levels were likely to increase in Battlement Mesa as a result of the natural gas development project.”

They noted that residents in an adjacent community with current gas-well development have reported short-term symptoms (e.g., headaches, upper respiratory irritation) during “odor events” that occur with gas well operations.  In addition, they projected a substantial increase in vehicle traffic.  Based on information provided by the gas developer, residents could expect an additional 40 to 280 truck trips per day to each gas well pad.  In addition, about 120 to 150 workers would commute into the community.  The authors write:

“Because Battlement Mesa does not house other industrial activities and commercial activities are minimal, this change in traffic patterns would represent a consequential change.”

The CSPH researchers also projected that noise levels would increase during the well-development period and could result in health impacts, such as sleep disturbances, fatigue, mood changes, and impaired condition.  Residents’ concerns about property value declines were found to be grounded in fact.  The researchers referred to a Garfield County specific study which reported an average 15% decline in property values during well development, which persisted for two years after completion of the wells.  “Declining land values,” the CSPH authors wrote, “could cause residents psychosocial stress,” and its health effects “should not be discounted.”

In contrast, they did not think exposure to contaminated drinking water was likely given the community’s source water is located upstream of the project.  The researchers concluded that industry-related chemical or waste spills would be unlikely, as would fires and explosions.  They did not project measurable increases in crime, sexually-transmitted diseases, or school enrollment that could be attributed alone to the gas development project.

Second, the fallout.

A first draft of the HIA was available for stakeholder input in Fall 2010.   Interest in the document was intense, not just from the Battlement Concerned Citizens’ group or residents of Garfield County, but nationwide.   The HIA was the first of its kind related to natural gas development.  A broader group of interests, including an industry trade group, “caused the focus of the HIA to shift from addressing possible exposures to parties sparring over risk assessment methods,” as the CSPH authors write in their paper.  A process and document that was supposed to help local officials make an informed decision turned into a battle before the Garfield County Commission.

NPR’s Elizabeth Shogren reported in May 2012 on the HIA fallout.  The West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association said the CSPH researchers “used what we believe was questionable data, at best.”  A long-time Garfield County Commissioner told Shogren:

“this is a football in the arena of global warming and anti-oil and gas, or anti-environment. We said enough is enough, people.”

The County Commission voted to leave the HIA as an unfinished document and to end the project.  Regardless, the information contained in the draft HAI is valuable.  It illustrates a site-specific and systematic way to evaluate potential health impacts of a proposed policy.  I’ve no doubt that the residents of Battlement Mesa are better informed about the magnitude and severity of the likely health impacts related to natural gas development in their community, than they were before the HIA was developed.  To their credit, the Garfield County Department of Environmental Health has the draft HIA and other project documents on its website.



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