Mountain States

Activist Talking Points in Denver Post Story Debunked by Leading Public Health Officials in Colorado

EID has noted several times over the past few weeks that Colorado’s top environmental and health regulators have considered and addressed health and safety issues raised by anti-fossil fuel activists for some time and across multiple studies, public comments, and in the news.

EID’s health report and op-ed from March compiled publicly available data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and looked at health indicators, air quality samples, and CDPHE’s review of literature on health effects:

“First, EID looked at heath indicators in Weld County, home to the vast majority of Colorado’s oil and gas activity. Despite an active well count that has doubled since 2002, a three-fold increase in natural gas production and a 12-fold increase in oil production, death rates for cancer, respiratory illness and heart disease dropped by 1.9 percent, 9.1 percent and 21.4 percent respectively over that time-frame.”

A look at CDPHE’s own air sample testing in areas with “substantial” oil and gas found, “All measured air concentrations were below short-and long-term ‘safe’ levels of exposure for non-cancer health effects, even for sensitive populations.”

Finally, CDPHE’s examination of 12 relevant epidemiological studies covering 27 different health effects associated with oil and gas operations found “no substantial or moderate evidence for any health effects.” The CDPHE authors ranked a majority of the findings in these studies of “low quality, primarily due to limitations of the study designs that make it difficult to establish clear links between exposures to substances emitted directly from oil and gas and the outcomes evaluated.”

Yet yesterday’s Denver Post story included activists highlighting those same complaints again –whether Lisa McKenzie’s studies (including two reviewed by CDPHE in their report) or VOC blood tests that have now repeatedly been discouraged due to deep flaws.

For example, CDPHE has made it clear they do not recommend use of volatile organic compound (VOC) blood tests as a means to verify alleged health impacts some claim are attributable to close proximity to oil and gas development.

Not only have multiple CDPHE officials emphasized that VOC blood tests are extremely limited and unreliable – due largely to the fact that the tests cannot determine the source of detected VOCs and require specialized lab equipment and adherence to strict Center for Disease Control protocols in order to produce reliable results – the agency has also emphasized that, “Air monitoring around those oil and gas sites really is the best approach.”

But if Thursday’s Denver Post story on the continuing debate over Proposition 112 (formerly known as Initiative 97) is any indication, these facts bear repeating ahead of the Nov. 6 vote on a ballot measure that would increase setbacks throughout Colorado five-fold and severely curtail oil and gas development – and the economy as a whole – in the state.

The Post’s otherwise balanced story features a misleading anecdotal excerpt on Erie, Colo., resident and Prop 112 supporter Beth Ewaskowitz, who claims VOC blood tests show her 7-year-old son has elevated benzene levels likely attributable to nearby oil and gas activity. From the Post’s story:

“Ewaskowitz counted more than 70 active wells within a mile radius of her home and got her 7-year-old son tested for volatile organic compounds in his system. He was at the 85th percentile for benzene and other related compounds, she said. While she can’t definitively pin her son’s readings on oil and gas activity in Erie, she said she can’t ignore the possible link, either.

“It comes down to our health and safety,” she said, citing the primary reason she will vote for Proposition 112.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because Ewaskowitz made similar claims in a Denver7 news report back in May. Denver7 aired Ewaskowitz’s claims without much scrutiny, relying almost exclusively on accounts from anti-fracking activists and those with ties to the anti-fossil fuel movement, lending unwarranted credence to the use of VOC blood tests, which ultimately led to many Colorado residents having those tests conducted as a result.

But after EID pointed out the inaccuracies included in Denver7’s story, the station interviewed CDPHE chief toxicologist Dr. Mike Van Dyke, who set the record straight, noting that the CDPHE does not endorse the use of VOC blood testing.

CDPHE oil and gas liaison Sean Hackett echoed Van Dyke’s comments in a recent Garfield County Energy Advisory Board meeting, noting that VOC blood testing presents a high chance of false positives and contamination due to these various complexities stated earlier.

And as the Daily Sentinel recently reported, even go-to anti-fracking researcher Lisa McKenzie agrees that using VOC blood tests to draw connections between oil and gas development and public health impacts is unreliable and inappropriate,

“[McKenzie] said analyzing for benzene in a blood sample is very complicated, in part because there are so many sources of benzene in the environment, it doesn’t last long in the blood, and there’s potential for contamination occurring during steps ranging from sample collection to lab analysis.”

If the right quality-assurance control procedures are not in place, ‘it’s very difficult if not impossible to interpret the result,” she said. ‘Sampling of benzene (in) blood, it’s really tricky,’ she said.

“Doing air-quality monitoring rather than blood testing, she said, ‘would be a lot more straightforward, I think.’”

That happens to be exactly what the CDPHE recommends as well — and it also happens that extensive air monitoring by the department has determined oil and gas development emissions are “below short and long term health-based reference values” and continue to suggest a “very low risk of harmful health effects.”

The latter fact is absolutely critical for Colorado residents to understand moving forward for the following simple reason.

Though the Denver Post presented this debate as an either/or choice between the economy and public health, the facts show it is anything but, as passage of the ballot measure would have far greater real-world consequences.

On one end of the spectrum, it is clear that passage of Prop 112/Initiative 97 would adversely effect Colorado’s economy. Nobody disputes that fact. And the ballot measure would devastate the state’s oil and gas industry in particular. A Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission report finds that 85 percent of all nonfederal land in the state would be off-limits if the ballot measure passes, which would result in the loss of up to 147,800 Colorado jobs by 2030. Landowners would also be denied access to mineral development on their own private property, potentially impacting their livelihoods, particularly those of elderly residents on fixed incomes.

Independent political analyst Eric Sondermann put the potential impact to Colorado’s oil and gas industry in proper perspective, telling the Post,

“For some sectors of the economy, (Proposition 112) is a Category 5 threat I do believe the oil and gas industry, which is a huge player in this state, sees this not just as a nuisance or hassle. They see it in existential terms.”

On the other side of the coin, anti-fracking activists are pinning their claims of widespread adverse health effects attributable to fracking almost exclusively on studies from one researcher, Dr. McKenzie, that have been consistently discredited by the state’s top health and environmental regulators. Furthermore, even McKenzie has discredited the VOC blood tests activists are now using to claim provide evidence of health impacts.

It is for these reasons that Colorado Rising’s Anne Lee Foster’s claim that activists aren’t trying to run the oil and gas industry out of the state in Thursday’s Denver Post piece is so disingenuous. After all, Colorado Rising is has been bankrolled by out-of-state anti-fracking group Food & Water Watch – which tried to ban “toxic fracking” in Colorado in 2015 – in its effort to pass Prop 112.

And as Bloomberg reporter Catherine Traywick notes in the following Twitter thread, the disingenuous nature of the argument being presented in support of Prop 112 extends beyond health-related issues,

It is crystal clear that the goal of groups such as Colorado Rising is to end oil and gas development in Colorado, period. And Proposition 112 supporters apparently don’t mind pushing thoroughly discredited VOC tests and debunked anti-fracking research to the media in order to do it.

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