Drilling health concerns debated

Testimony in Washington suggests harmful effects Dennis Webb Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado November 1, 2007

A Colorado physician called government's failure to track and study potential health impacts related to energy development "a disgrace" Wednesday, during a congressional hearing that also included testimony by two people who say they became ill after living near gas development in Garfield County.Daniel Teitelbaum, a medical toxicologist and adjunct professor of environmental scientist at the Colorado School of Mines, was one of several witnesses to call for heightened environmental regulations of the oil and gas industry. He spoke before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in Washington, D.C."I have watched, with growing concern, the widespread development of the oil and gas industry in our state in the absence of any rational public health oversight of the consequences of this development, and of any resource for the evaluation and treatment of human illnesses that have arisen and will arise as a consequence of these activities," Teitelbaum testified.

Also speaking were Steve Mobaldi and Susan Wallace-Babb (formerly Susan Haire), who both said they were forced to move from their homes after suffering from ill effects related to nearby natural gas development.

Mobaldi and his wife, Elizabeth "Chris" Mobaldi, suffered symptoms such as headaches and burning eyes that they believe were related to drilling, which occurred as close as 300 feet from their Rifle-area home. But Chris Mobaldi's maladies went further, including rashes and blisters, pituitary tumors and development of a severe speech disorder that includes pronouncing some words with a foreign accent.

"Several times Chris said 'something is killing me living in this house' so we packed up and abandoned the house in 2004 after trying to sell it for years," Steve Mobaldi testified.

The couple now lives in Grand Junction.

Wallace-Babb said she became a prisoner inside her own home outside Battlement Mesa after repeated exposures to chemicals near gas wells, including a cloud from condensate tanks that caused her to nearly pass out. She took to wearing a respirator whenever she went outside her home to do chores.

She since has moved to Texas.

She told the committee she used to believe governmental agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency protected citizens.

"I now know the EPA has been stripped of its power to do its defined job. All activities related to exploration for and recovery of oil and gas are exempt from the laws made to protect our environment and citizens. The oil and gas industry in Colorado is regulated by those who benefit from non-regulation and irresponsible actions where oil and gas are concerned. In a situation where the fox guards the hen house, it's deadly being a hen," she told the House committee.

Amy Mall, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said decades of deal-making between Congress, regulatory agencies and the oil and gas industry have resulted in it being exempted from water and air protection laws, and those requiring public reporting of toxic chemical use. She said those loopholes need to be closed.

Carbondale resident Ken Neubecker, speaking on behalf of Trout Unlimited, called for the reversal of a 2005 energy bill provision that exempts the industry's construction activities from storm water runoff regulations. He said such activities threaten everything from fisheries to public drinking water supplies.

But Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water for the EPA, noted that the exemption doesn't preclude states from imposing their own regulations. That's something Colorado has chosen to do.

"EPA ... recognizes that environmental protection strategies must evolve as the characteristics of U.S. industries and their operations change over time and that one-size-fits-all regulatory approaches do not always achieve superior environmental performance," he told the committee.

David Bolin, deputy director of Alabama's State Oil and Gas Board and a representative of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), said states and the industry examined the storm water management issue and found it wasn't feasible to develop a single standard to fit diverse requirements around the country.

"The bottom line with respect to the storm water issue is that there is no issue. Based on the conclusions of the IOGCC study, the states were already adequately regulating this activity," he said.

Bolin also responded to concerns that hydraulic fracturing used to stimulate gas well production could cause fracturing fluids consisting of undisclosed substances to contaminate groundwater.

"Approximately 35,000 wells are hydraulically fractured annually in this country with close to one million wells having been hydraulically fractured in the United States since the technique's inception with no documented harm to groundwater. Hydraulic fracturing has been regulated by the states since its inception," he said.

Bolin said creating new federal storm water and fracturing regulations wouldn't make oil and gas production any safer, but would increase its costs, thus reducing domestic supply.