Concerns are mounting over health effects of gas drilling.
By PETER GORMAN
Charles Morgan can’t sleep at night. The low-frequency noise from the 11 gas compressors at an Anadarko facility about a mile from his home in the little Freestone County community of Lanely gives him such bad headaches that he frequently has to take a motel room to get away from it. Sometimes he just gets into his pickup or Volkswagen and drives to a country lane elsewhere in the county to get free of it. On other occasions he’s found himself in the hospital emergency room.
“The noise has ruptured one of my eardrums,” said the 65-year-old former Air Force major, who recently retired from his engineer’s job with the Texas prison system. “The pain in my head gets so bad I think I’ll die. My legs start jumping. My blood pressure goes sky high.”
What Morgan suffers from is vibroacoustic disease (VAD), described in Noise and Health, a respected international journal, as a “whole-body, systemic pathology,” marked by “[d]epressions, increased irritability and aggressiveness, a tendency for isolation, and decreased cognitive skills,” among other symptoms.
It’s brought on by excessive exposure to low-frequency noise, the kind you hear in airplanes, near wind turbines, and from natural gas compressor stations. It’s not well known in this country, and the leading researchers on it work in Europe. But it’s real.
Jim Ashford, who lives in the upscale gated community of Riverbend Estates in East Fort Worth, suffers from it as well. “I can’t sleep. I just lie in bed awake listening to that noise,” he said. The noise comes from three Chesapeake compressors about 2,700 feet from his house. “And because I can’t sleep, I’m irritable. I just hurt in general, and I find myself getting angry and snapping over things that I shouldn’t.”
Gwen Lachelt, director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, which works with urban and rural communities and tribal groups “to protect their homes and the environment from the devastating impacts of oil and gas development,” says noise abatement is a very important issue and is getting more important “as drilling gets closer to – and in Fort Worth’s case, comes into – urban areas.” The group has already convinced regulators in Colorado to take the noise issue seriously.
But VAD isn’t the only health problem that those in the vicinity of oil and gas operations need to watch out for. Two recent studies by the University of Colorado School of Public Health suggest that gas drilling and its accompanying activities, including compressor stations, may cause serious health problems for those nearby – that is, pretty much everyone in Fort Worth.
The researchers found that “neighborhoods, schools, and workers in close proximity to oil and gas activities may be at increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and other disorders,” due to industry pollutants. It’s critical, they said, for more study to be done on those dangers.
“There are so many areas of gas drilling that have long-term potential to affect the public health,” Lachelt said. “What chemicals are actually being used in the drilling and fraccing of wells? What emissions are coming off compressors and being released into the air? What is being evaporated from drill site pits, and how much harm will it do to people and animals in the long run? How much contaminated waste-pit water will wind up in our surface water and earth? There are just a host of issues that are not being studied and need to be studied if we’re going to get our arms around the danger these wells and everything connected with them might pose to people.”
Fears in North Texas seem to be increasing as more and more people report health problems that seem to be related to drilling – and find little in the way of regulation or real answers as to what the dangers are. At Fort Worth Weekly, the questions and worries arrive by e-mail and letter frequently. Some report noise-related health problems and worry about compressor-station emissions. Many have found their well water ruined and wonder what toxins they ingested before the levels got so high as to make the problem noticeable by sight and smell.
Renee Salzman lives in Arlington, about 700 feet from a new well at Davis and Division streets, and she’s sick. “I’ve had these severe headaches, and I’ve had to clear phlegm from my throat constantly for the last couple of weeks,” she said. “I work in a garage studio, and after a couple of hours, I’ve just got a horrible headache.” She’s convinced that her illness is connected to the well because her symptoms appeared when the drilling company “started filling up the retention pool with that toxic waste.” Her daughters, too, are suffering from headaches.
Susan De Los Santos, a member of the Fort Worth Gas Drilling Task Force, said her group “didn’t get to tackle environmental issues because we were told to wrap things up sooner than we wanted.” She’s convinced that the citizen representatives on the industry-heavy task force would support regulations requiring more recapture of emitted gases and toxins. The task force did meet with the city council to discuss environmental issues in a workshop, she said, so that the council would have some basis for addressing those issues when it comes time to redraw the city’s drilling ordinance.
Both studies by the Denver researchers relied heavily on reviews of literature – that is, gathering various pieces of research already done on health aspects of gas and oil drilling.
The first, published in August, reviewed literature on the health effects of exposure to chemicals used or produced in drilling. The list is long and frightening, with toxins ranging from arsenic and barium to radiation from radon, radium, and uranium.
Exposure to one group of the drilling-related chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds that include benzene and toluene, can put people at risk of developing leukemia, kidney and neurological diseases, as well as increasing the risk of renal and other cancers. (Toluene was one of the chemicals found in a North Texas aquifer a few months ago, downstream from a gas drilling site, water that killed and sickened livestock and made some farmland basically unusable.)
The study also looked at heavy exposure to diesel exhaust, a lung cancer hazard that can also increase risk of cardiovascular diseases, asthma, and respiratory infections. And researchers wrote that nitrogen and sulfuric oxide, the gases released from oil and gas production during flaring and from gas compressor stations, have been shown to increase the chance of deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as increasing the rate of premature births and low birth weights.
Other chemicals on the list: toxic metals, exposure to which can cause cancers, auto-immune diseases, and reproductive impairment; hydrogen sulfide, which can cause depression, weakness, and memory loss and can be fatal at high exposure levels; and fraccing fluid contaminants, the exact composition of which oil and gas companies refuse to reveal as proprietary information.
A follow-up paper released in September looked at the health impacts in Garfield County, Colorado, which has been heavily drilled for gas in the past several years. Medical researchers said the scant literature available, combined with preliminary studies of health status and air and water quality, indicated that Garfield County residents could be facing physical, psychological, and social problems because of the drilling.
Dr. Roxana Witter, lead writer on the studies, said in an interview that the findings are worrisome but preliminary. “My gut reaction is that I wouldn’t have my kids or mother or grandmother living near gas drilling because of the potential health risks,” she said. “The more thoughtful answer is that without data informing us what the exposures are, we cannot be specific about the hazards.”
The preliminary data from Garfield County, she said, suggests that known exposures to dangerous chemicals are a real concern. “But when someone says ‘I’m throwing up’, or ‘I’m constipated’, I want a physician to be able to answer the question of whether those things are related to gas drilling. So I want studies done. Without them there will always be doubts. We’re trying to bring science to this issue so that the agencies that are charged with protecting our health can have the data to do that.”
She urged that more studies, targeted specifically at the gas-drilling industry, be done. “I believe it’s vital that someone begins to do legitimate scientific monitoring of air, water, noise, and light in connection with oil and gas development – drilling and production – near urban areas,” she said. “There is a potential for serious effects, but the science is not yet there to explain it.”
Lachelt would also like to see more studies done but thinks the gas companies could do a lot even now to mitigate human and environmental contact with toxins if they chose to. “We want the companies to publicly disclose the chemicals they’re using in drilling and fraccing. And we want them to use technology to capture the emissions that come off compressors and wells during flaring,” she said. “British Petroleum has been working with green completion technologies” – systems to recapture gases that otherwise escape into the atmosphere – “on 40 percent of their new wells, and they’ve found they can break even on the deal financially by selling what they capture and then also eliminate an enormous amount of methane from being freed into the air.”
A technology called the closed-loop system can also eliminate most of the wastewater pits – where toxic water sits and evaporates into the air until it’s hauled away to injection wells – by recycling the chemical-infused water in a given well.
“At a bare minimum,” said Lachelt, “wastewater pits need to be lined, fluids have to be removed quickly, there shouldn’t be any onsite burial of pit waste, and closed-loop drilling should be standard operating technology. And we immediately need to insist that only nontoxic substances be used in drilling and fracturing a well.”
The real fear, she said, is that “the accumulation of toxins in the air and water might do major health damage as time goes by. Are we going to see more people getting cancers? The only way we’ll know is by having ongoing monitoring and health studies to see what’s really going into the air, onto the ground, and into our water systems.”
In the meantime, Jim Ashford and Charles Morgan don’t see an end to their sleepless nights.
Lisa Sumi, a noise specialist with the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, said that while the gas companies might claim that complaints like those from Morgan and Ashford are not connected to the compressors near their homes, in Colorado OGAP convinced the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission – equivalent to the Texas Railroad Commission – to recognize low-frequency noise as a very real issue.
“Now when someone complains, the owners of the compressor units have to take readings, and if there is low-frequency noise being emitted, they have to eliminate it. Period,” she said. “And it’s as simple as putting up a building around the compressor to contain the sound. It costs a little for the gas companies but makes them much better neighbors.”