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America's natural gas industry is thriving. And hundreds of thousands of new wells have given a vital boost to the nation's sputtering economy. But today, we ask: At what cost? A debate is raging about whether these wells, in addition to creating jobs, are also creating harmful air pollution.
NPR's Elizabeth Shogren takes us now to Garfield County, Colorado. There, gas wells are being built so close to people's homes that residents are increasingly disturbed by what they call close encounters.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Living in the middle of a natural gas boom can be pretty unsettling. Let me tell you about this one neighborhood in Silt.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
SHOGREN: It used to be the kind of sleepy, rural place where the tweet of birds was the most you'd hear. Now you can hardly make out the birds because of the rumbling of drilling rigs.
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SHOGREN: The land here is all steep cliffs and valleys. But bare splotches of earth called a well pad are all over the place.
TIM RAY: Yeah, that's the one I'm worried about 'cause it just went in.
SHOGREN: We're on Tim Ray's front porch just after sunset. You can see the lights of drill rigs all around his small house.
RAY: And there's actually one up here over the hill that they just put in. There's one - three or four of them up there.
SHOGREN: People around here say the air stinks. They complain about itchy eyes, scratchy throats, and getting sick to their stomachs.
RAY: I worry about my health. I worry about my kids' health.
SHOGREN: Companies can drill 20 wells or more from a single site. They come back again and again over the course of years. Each time there's an onslaught of fumes. There are exhausts from drilling machines, vapors from storage tanks, and lots of chemicals in the millions of gallons of water drillers use to get the wells flowing faster.
Tim wonders: What's in those fumes that blow into his yard?
RAY: Nobody has told us anything about the quality of our air, as far as what we're smelling or anything. I would feel better if I knew that the gases weren't bad.
SHOGREN: People are asking these same questions wherever natural gas is being drilled around the United States. Tresi Houpt has been too. for a long time.
TRESI HOUPT: There's a great frustration. I'm hearing the same stories today that I heard nine years ago.
SHOGREN: That was when she left her pretty log home on a ski mountain and went to campaign to be a Garfield County commissioner. Tresi sounds low-key but really she's a fighter. As she went around the county campaigning, she got really charged up because she just couldn't believe what she saw.
HOUPT: In Colorado, you can have a drill rig 150 feet from a home. The original thought was if the rig falls it won't hit the house.
SHOGREN: She didn't want this county, this rural refuge, to be sacrificed, to be developed for energy for the rest of the country. In 2002, she won her election and here's one of the first things she wanted to know: Did scientists have any answers for what was in the air around here? Let me tell you, she was shocked by what she found.
HOUPT: There really were no good studies out there at the time.
SHOGREN: Not local ones, state ones or from the Environmental Protection Agency. Not about this gas field or any others in the United States. So she got busy trying to figure out what was in the air.
But Tresi was only one of three commissioners - those are the people who run the county. She had to get the others on board, as well. The same was true when she was part of a state committee that regulates drilling.
HOUPT: The conversation was always a question of how far we should push the industry. It was a question at the county level. It was a question when I was on the Oil and Gas Commission and we were rewriting the rules.
SHOGREN: The industry was bringing a lot of jobs and a lot of money to Garfield County. Still, the commissioners did agree to start spending some of the county's gas royalties to try to get answers. They hired Jim Rada in 2005 to create an environmental health office.
JIM RADA: So, I'm going to take you guys down to the west.
SHOGREN: He's gives us a ride around the county in his hybrid SUV. He wants to show us the gas industry spreads out all over the place.
RADA: There are pipelines, there are storage yards, compressor stations, gas plants...
SHOGREN: He's spent a good seven years studying the air here. He has monitors on top of a school, a fire station and historic buildings. They tell him the air is pretty good for most people in his county. But what about the people with front-row seats to the drilling?
RADA: How close can people be to these operations, you know?
SHOGREN: So, in 2008, Jim Rada got the chance to examine just how close. He put air sampling canisters around eight wells that were being drilled. For 24 hours they captured chemicals.
Now that seems like an obvious thing to do but it hadn't been done before - not anywhere in the United States.
RADA: We were pretty much breaking new ground, you know, in terms of trying to do the science that needed to be done in order to answer some of these questions.
SHOGREN: Jim found very large amounts of chemicals. Some of them, like benzene, can cause cancer. Others, like xylenes, can irritate eyes and lungs. But no matter what data he came up with everyone said he needed more. Jim realized he needed back up.
RADA: To get to the bottom line and answer that big nagging question of what is this air quality doing to the health of the community, that takes a whole lot more resources than a single county can devote to this.
SHOGREN: OK, so this was 2009. Nearly 3,000 wells had gone in the year before. And the commissioners' next move, who they called, turned out to have some pretty painful consequences. You see, they moved beyond looking at what was in the air to whether gas industry pollution could make people sick.
They called in the Colorado School of Public Health. They wanted to see if researchers could take Jim's data and predict whether lots of drilling in a neighborhood could hurt people's health.
John Adgate chairs the school and worked on the project.
DR. JOHN ADGATE: We used what little data that Garfield County had collected around the well sites to estimate those effects.
SHOGREN: They predicted small increases in risks of cancer, head aches and lung problems. And when that study went public, all hell broke loose. Everything became too...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Political.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Political.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Political.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Political.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Political.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Political.
SHOGREN: Nearly everybody we talked to said that, including John Martin. He's another long-time Garfield county commissioner. John Martin says it became political because people who live near wells used the report to attack the industry in lawsuits. And gas companies didn't like it.
JOHN MARTIN: Both sides were fighting. They wanted to use this document in both arguments that it didn't hurt anything and it killed everyone.
SHOGREN: The companies argued that the researchers were jumping to conclusions. David Ludlam is the executive director of the regional industry trade group.
DAVID LUDLAM: They used what we believe was questionable data, at best. You can't make assumptions about health impacts if you don't have the data to support it.
SHOGREN: Now, the Colorado School of Public Health stands behind its study and so do other academic experts. But the controversy got too hot for the county. This is how John Martin remembers it.
MARTIN: We said this is a football in the arena of global warming and anti-oil and gas, or anti-environment. We said enough is enough, people.
SHOGREN: He says there was only one thing to do. The county commissioners called a meeting.
MARTIN: Gentleman, decision time. All those in favor of the motion to end the contract and to leave as an unfinished document.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Aye.
MARTIN: Leave it at that point.
SHOGREN: The commission voted to end the project.
And Remember Tresi Houpt, the commissioner who started the big push for answers? Well, she didn't have a vote because she had lost her re-election. So she stood on the sidelines, watching all her years of work unraveling.
HOUPT: I was stunned. I was absolutely stunned.
SHOGREN: All that momentum the county had built up? It came to a screeching halt. They tried a couple more times to study air near wells, but gas industry rep David Ludlam objected.
LUDLAM: I sent an email indicating that our operators and our organization would be uncomfortable moving forward working with this Colorado School of Public Health, because things had become so polarized that we didn't see a pathway forward.
SHOGREN: David Ludlam says there's a new study in the works, with different researchers on the job. Results won't come for at least three years.
So a decade has passed since Garfield County started seeking answers. Back then, the county had 800 wells. Now there are more than 8,000.
As for the people who live near wells - whether they're in Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania or Utah - they still don't know what they're breathing.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.
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