Delays Persist On ‘Most Comprehensive’ Oil And Gas Health Assessment From Colorado Health Officials
As Colorado’s Senate Bill 181, an overhaul of the state’s oil and gas regulatory framework, makes its way to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk to sign, the state is still waiting for the release of the “most comprehensive” health assessment from the state’s health department, according to analysis conducted by Western Wire.
In September 2016, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment [CDPHE] announced that data from the “most comprehensive assessments of air toxics, ozone precursors and greenhouse gas emission rates from oil and natural gas well operations to date” would help provide “critical information to design a detailed and accurate health risk assessment so we can answer questions related to potential health concerns related to oil and gas operations.”
The health assessment based on the data was originally scheduled for a summer 2018 release, but has been frequently delayed according to CDPHE representatives, and now faces an indefinite release date.
“The assessment is still under scientific review, and it will be released to the public as soon as that process is complete,” CDPHE Communications Director Jessica Bralish told Western Wire on March 27.
The anticipated health assessment has been repeatedly delayed—through a contentious 2018 midterm election featuring oil and gas setbacks on the ballot, and a highly controversial oil and gas reform bill in the 2019 Colorado General Assembly—according to queries and correspondence with CDPHE over several months between 2018 and the publication of this story.
The long-awaited CDPHE health assessment was originally projected by a Colorado State University release and a September 15, 2016 CDPHE release, as well as the February 2017 CDPHE health report, to be released by summer 2018.
“The Air Quality Control Commission today received a report from the three-year North Front Range Oil and Gas Air Pollutant Emission and Dispersion Study conducted by Colorado State University. Data from the study – and a similar Garfield County study completed in June 2016 – will be used in a health-risk assessment to be completed by summer 2018,” the 2016 CDPHE release stated by then-Communications Director Mark Salley.
“The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will coordinate the health-risk assessment using the data from this study and is contracting the work to a third party consulting company,” the agency added.
The release outlined the emissions research conducted by CSU and offered a preliminary glimpse at the results.
“Jeffrey Collett, professor and head of CSU’s Department of Atmospheric Science, was the principal investigator for the North Front Range study. The study was designed to quantify emissions from three specific oil and gas development activities,” wrote Salley, including, “Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” “Flowback (of liquids after fracking),” and “Production operations.”
“CSU researchers conducted 18 experiments to quantify air emission rates and dispersion of air toxics, ozone precursors and greenhouse gases from each of the three processes,” the release continued.
“Overall, production emissions (which may continue for many years) were found to be lower than the shorter-term fracking and flowback emissions, which last for a few days to a few weeks. Emissions in the North Front Range were slightly lower than in Garfield County, but contained heavier-weight organic compounds, likely due to differences in the geology between the basins,” Salley added.
The report was projected by the agency to be substantial in outcome.
“Data from these two studies represent one of the most comprehensive assessments of air toxics, ozone precursors and greenhouse gas emission rates from oil and natural gas well operations to date,” wrote Salley.
The press release, which is no longer available on the site and was last accessed on October 15, 2018 according to web.archive.org, concluded with a statement from the former state top medical and health official.
“Dr. Larry Wolk, the department’s executive director and chief medical officer, said, ‘These studies will provide us with critical information to design a detailed and accurate health risk assessment so we can answer questions related to potential health concerns related to oil and gas operations,’” the release concluded.
Last July Western Wire reached out to Salley, who said the summer completion schedule had been pushed back to Fall 2018.
“It will be sometime in the fall as we will be submitting for peer review prior to releasing the study information,” Salley wrote on July 23rd, 2018.
Western Wire sought further information about a new target date for release, and CDPHE’s Salley responded on January 10th, saying that “[w]e expect the next CDPHE health risk assessment to be available in peer review publications by end of first quarter (March) 2019.”
Salley was able to offer that site-specific exposure investigations called for by the agency’s Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program mentioned in the 2017 report and an outgrowth of the 2014-2015 oil and gas task force.
A sampling of those OGHIR field reports revealed that CDPHE measurements of air concentrations for VOCs [volatile organic compounds] and other emissions found “60 substances analyzed… were below short- and long-term health based reference values and approximately the same as the average air concentrations along the Front Range.”
The OGHIR authors concluded that “[b]ased on the results from this preliminary air sampling investigation there appears to be a low risk for harmful health effects due to exposures from VOCs.”
An open records request by Western Wire seeking documents related to the report was filed on March 1. As of the date of this publication, the agency has yet to deliver approximately 1,600 responsive documents it estimated would take 27.5 hours of staff time to complete. A tentative delivery deadline by CDPHE staff for the end of the week of April 5 has passed.
CDPHE did not have a response for this story on the open records timeline.