Are residents getting ‘gassed’?

Group: Samples turned up multiple toxins

The gas and oil industry may be carrying nearly half the property-tax burden in La Plata County, but it’s not towing its weight in protecting neighbors’ health, according to a study released today by the Global Community Monitor.

The report examined at air samples taken from several locations on the Western Slope and in Southwest Colorado and New Mexico. It found 22 toxic chemicals in the air around natural-gas facilities, including four cancer-causing toxins and others known to cause damage to people’s nervous and respiratory systems.

“People are getting gassed, and they don’t even know what is coming at them,” said Denny Larson, Global Community Monitor executive director.

The Global Community Monitor is a nonprofit organization known for creating the “Bucket Brigade” concept that trains people across the globe to monitor for industry-caused pollution in their communities.

Sunnyside Elementary School was among the sites tested for the report: “Gassed! A Citizen Investigation of Toxic Air Pollution from Natural Gas Development.”

It found four cancer-causing toxins in the air there, with two of them at levels associated with long-term health risks to people who are exposed.

The school recently underwent air-quality testing through a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initiative investigating the safety of gas and oil industry production near schools. Sunnyside Elementary is located near wells operated by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

The EPA testing, which was led by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, found low levels of benzene, a toxin that can affect bone marrow and cause both anemia and leukemia if inhaled in high quantities. However, the levels identified were below thresholds that federal officials say are cause for concern, and the agency discontinued testing at the site. Ongoing monitoring by the tribe’s Air Quality Program officials continues at a site about 1.5 miles away, EPA documents said.

Ruth Breech, program director for Global Community Monitoring, said her organization stands behind the results of its study. She said air testing at the Sunnyside school site was done by Mike Meschke, environmental director at San Juan Basin Health Department. The EPA and “Gassed!” studies are difficult to compare, she said, because the EPA was “looking for different things.”

But perceived conflicts of interest often emerge with the results in studies like these, she said.

For instance, having the Southern Ute Indian Tribe act as the lead agency in collecting air samples at a school near a gas-production facility under its purview could be problematic. Even when third-party consultant groups collect the data, Breech said it is questionable whether the consultants would “come out with a damning report” against the organization that hired them.

An EPA spokeswoman on Monday said the agency had not yet reviewed the “Gassed!” report and couldn’t provide comment.

Southern Ute Indian Tribe government offices were closed for a religious holiday Monday. But in the weeks after the release of the EPA report, Tribal Chairwoman Pearl Casias said the tribe’s natural-gas and oil-production companies operate with higher standards than those set by the federal government. Even more emphasis on air and water quality is placed on operations near homes, businesses and schools, she said.

“We always try to be very protective of our environment,” Casias said.

Officials with Global Community Monitoring and the San Juan Citizens Alliance said the study wasn’t meant to cause panic. They hope it will prompt more education, citizen involvement and testing around gas and oil development.

“I think residents better start paying attention,” said Josh Joswick, energy issues organizer for San Juan Citizens Alliance. “They should be concerned enough to want to know what’s coming out of the facilities near them.”

hscofield@durangoherald.com

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