Expert details extensive use and production of toxic chemicals in natural gas production

Reprinted with permission from Our Community News, August 2, 2008

Expert details extensive use and production of toxic chemicals in natural gas production

By Chris Pollard
In an informational meeting held on July 22 at the Pinecrest Events Center in Palmer Lake, with about 60 people present, Chris Amenson, president of the Front Range Environmental Resource Coalition (FRERC), gave a brief update regarding the proposal by Dyad Petroleum to drill for natural gas west of the Tri-lakes region. The coalition had invited Dr. Theo Colborn, the internationally renowned and awarded expert on the effects of chemicals used and generated in the production of natural gas, to give a talk about the many issues with chemicals related to this process.

Amenson noted that while the current proposal by Dyad was to drill two test wells, it had in fact leased 21,000 acres of the Pike National Forest. With a density of wells that could be reasonably seen to reach one per every 40 acres, the final tally could exceed 500 wells.

He presented a chart that illustrated a section of the geology in the local area. This showed the Denver/Arapahoe aquifer, from which local water districts draw their water, going down about 6,250 feet. Dyad wants to drill through this aquifer down to 8,000 feet. The two proposed drilling sites are on two 5-acre sites adjacent to Raspberry Mountain—almost immediately adjacent to the Red Rocks subdivision.

Amenson pointed out that because drilling has effects below and above ground, the problem is not just a Tri-Lakes problem but also a Colorado Springs and Air Force Academy problem.

No decision on the drilling is expected before spring 2009, but the environmental assessment by the U.S. Forest Service could be released as early as January 2009. He noted that Dyad had been invited to attend the meeting but had again declined. Amenson added that even with all the potential liabilities inherent in a drilling operation, Dyad, an eight-person company, would have to post only a $50,000 performance bond.

Bonnie Hildebrandt, a member of FRERC, then introduced the guest speaker. She noted that the primary goal of the presentation was to provide education on the issues of air and water pollution related to gas drilling operations. Colborn is an international expert on health issues related to the chemicals used in the gas drilling process. The information she has provided will form the cornerstone of FRERC’s response to the environmental assessment report. FRERC had concerns over the Forest Service’s and Dyad’s ability to maintain safe operations.

Colborn has spoken in several countries, written a book, “Our Stolen Future,” and founded the organization called the Endocrine Disruption Exchange. She has received numerous accolades and international awards. She was an advisor to the EPA on endocrine disruption issues and was selected as one of Time magazine’s 2007 Global Environmental Heroes.

In a biography handed out at the meeting, Colborn was noted as an expert on the trans-generational effects of toxic chemicals in the womb on the developing endocrine, immune, metabolic and nervous systems. She is a professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Colborn said she would talk about “What you need to know about natural gas production.” She then showed some pictures of gas drilling operations in Garfield County, where well heads had now reached a density of one per 35 acres. Some wells in production had a number of evaporation ponds and others had larger ponds for storing water that comes up with the gas. These ponds are filled by water trucks driven from yet other wells close by. In the evaporation ponds, powered misters are set up to force the water into the air. Now the permits have been changed in the area to increase the density to allow one well per 10 acres.

To illustrate the various stages in the construction of a well, Colborn talked about a well being drilled in Gunnison County, but the water from the site feeds into Garfield County. Two ponds are present at the first stages of drilling—one filled with the rock chips from the cutting head and the other with drilling mud used as a lubricant and blocking agent. The area where they were drilling was immediately adjacent to a creek. During the drilling operation, a methane leak developed and started to flow into the creek. This drilling is occurring on lands within the national forest where farms have become no longer profitable and the owners are selling out to energy companies.

While drilling, the men work 12 hours on 12 hours off, because drilling has to continue around the clock. The men are typically hired on contract, without benefits, starting at $28 an hour.

The next phase of the operation is called frac-ing (fracturing), though the industry is now trying to change this to “stimulation,” Colborn said. There may be as many as 28 wells on a drilling pad site. Each of these wells will have up to six spurs out the bottom of the main drill pipe. Then, with explosives and high pressure injection of chemicals, these individual spurs are fractured out to as much as 2,000 feet. In the process the equipment on the surface uses vast quantities of diesel fuel for running the pumps and trucks associated with the operation. Each well may require around 20 “frac-ing tanks.” While the tanks are supposed to be kept closed, it is common for them to be left open.

After the frac-ing fluids are forced down the well and left under pressure for a period, the pressure is released and the fluids then come back up the pipe and are stored in the tanks. The thousands of gallons of fluids involved in fracturing the well include surfactants, proppers to hold the bore open and various other chemicals. In addition, there is extensive use of very strong biocides. The reason for the biocides is to kill bacteria down the hole that might produce hydrogen sulfide. Other bacteria that are killed can corrode the drill pipes. The material is extremely toxic, and the industry now is turning to organic biocides.

The trucks that store the concentrated frac-ing chemicals are usually anonymous-looking large U-Haul-style trucks. Chemicals are kept in 42-gallon barrels inside the trucks with no indication on the outside that they contain toxic chemicals.

As diesel is burned in the frac-ing and well servicing, considerable levels of NOx (nitrogen oxides) are produced. The wells also generate quantities of volatile organic compounds that are vented off. In sunlight, these two sorts of compounds combine to produce ozone. In Pinedale, Wyo., they are reaching 122 parts per billion in the middle of winter. Colborn said the concentrations should be limited so that people are not exposed to more than 40 parts per billion, because the ozone molecules can get into the lungs and destroy cells. This damage is cumulative, and tests have shown that children exposed to these molecules in the air in the Los Angeles area now have reduced lung capacity by the time they reach their early 20s. It is also known to trigger asthma. She said increasing ozone concentrations causes reduced birth weights in newborns and rising incidences of asthma.

Because of the clean air in the Colorado area, monitoring of ozone has not been extensive. More recently, Pinedale, Aspen, and Denver are having ozone problems. In Denver, this is thought to be due to drilling north of the city.

Colborn then described the process of removing the dirty water from the gas. Each well head has a dehydrator and a flaring stack. The dehydrator consists of a tank where the gas is bubbled through ethylene glycol to absorb the water. The ethylene glycol then goes to another tank where it is heated to remove the water, and the condensate from that ends up in storage tanks. The other polluting gases that come up with the natural gas are flared off by burning on site. Because the process is apt to freeze in the winter, methanol is stored on site to heat the system.

Colborn noted that some new sites have a closed system, and water condensate is re-injected back into the well. She also noted the presence at each site of 500 hp diesel-driven fan and pump combinations that cool and pump the gas at about 500 pounds per square inch into the distribution pipes. These pumps can be built immediately adjacent to homes, and noise suppression equipment can muffle the sound.

Some of the coal bed methane wells that are nearer the surface give off tremendous amounts of fugitive methane coming directly out of the ground. This is a concern because methane is a much more powerful climate-changing gas than carbon dioxide.

In a further comment on the evaporation pits, Colborn said that she had found that most of these ponds were not covered with nets to protect animals and birds as they were supposed to be. She had been able to fly over some of the ponds hidden in the mountains near Grand Junction. These ponds were exceeding their allowable limits in the tonnage of volatile organic compounds dumped in them. In her opinion this was being exacerbated by wildcatters dumping into the ponds.

A new evaporation pond west of Grand Junction is now servicing one water truck per minute. The tendency is to run some of these ponds very close to overflowing. Another issue with the evaporation ponds has to do with the sticky residue that is left at the end of the process. Some companies have bought land close to the ponds and are now “discing” the residue into the surface soil.

Colborn then talked about her unique research into the types of chemicals used in frac-ing mixes. Information is not published nor required to be published on the materials that companies use. She has found one complete recipe for these compounds but has needed to analyze the contaminated water found in residential wells to determine what chemicals are used. People whose wells have been compromised have reported bizarre health effects. Many of these people have adrenal gland problems and other endocrine-related problems. In almost all cases, it has been impossible to prove that the illnesses are directly caused by the contamination.

Over the years, Colborn has accumulated information on chemical use on the Western Slope. Through the availability of MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) she has identified 215 products containing 278 chemicals. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology intern helped her categorize the health effects of these chemicals. Of the chemicals used, 93 percent had the potential for causing adverse health effects. Of these, 81 percent have the potential of four to 14 health effects, and 42 percent are endocrine disruptors. These are more of a problem because they can have prenatal effects. She noted that many people now suffer from endocrine-related problems such as thyroid problems and diabetes. While most organizations cite the lack of cancer-causing problems with these chemicals, other health problems are much more prevalent.

In a study of old evaporation pits in New Mexico, most of the chemicals in the pits were on the Superfund list. This had the potential to make every pit a Superfund site.

Colborn then turned to the atmospheric effects of haze. Conifers were susceptible to the level of haze, and she believed that parts of the San Bernardino Forest in California were lost because of the ozone haze there.

We do not know every chemical used by the gas drilling industry, Colborn said, and we do not know the quantities used nor their concentration or what combinations are used. She said we do not know what is recovered and what is left in the evaporation pits. Nobody is keeping track of the vast quantities of water that drillers’ trucks take from the Colorado River and that might not be returned, she said.

Colborn said there is a need to implement baseline monitoring of well sites and then monitor them continuously while in production. She said there are chronic latent problems with the contamination of the ground, water, and air.

She noted that further information was available at her organization’s Web site:

Colborn then introduced Laura Amos, who lived in the gas drilling area of Garfield County and who was diagnosed with primary hyperaldosteronism, a very rare condition involving a tumor in the adrenal gland.

Amos said she had lived in a “gas patch” on a small ranch in rural Colorado. This area had a huge amount of natural gas below the surface, and initially it was not exploited. Then, Halliburton developed the technology for frac-ing, and Garfield County is now the site for more than 25,000 active gas wells, some only 150 feet from homes.

The process was initiated in 1998 by the arrival of a land manager representing the drilling company. A few months later, work began on her property and by 2003 she realized that she was now living in an industrial wasteland. The environment had been completely taken over, and there was constant traffic.

There were many nasty odors of diesel fuel natural gas products, and it smelled like a chemical lab every day, Amos said. She was awakened in the middle of the night with headaches and subjected to around-the-clock lights and profanity from the drilling and maintenance crews and their trucks.

Because of her health problems, she spent eight to 12 months doing research on natural gas production and became interested in the chemicals used. She found information on them was unavailable, and Congress had given the industry an exemption from the safe drinking water act. The watchdog organization of the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission was made up mostly of oil and gas industry people.

Amos came across a memo written by Colborn noting the use in frac-ing of a chemical called 2 butoxyethanol that had a tendency to induce malignant and non-malignant adrenal gland tumors. While EnCana, the drilling company, initially denied the use of this compound, she found out that at a later frac-ing site it was indeed being used. EnCana then organized the delivery of commercial water.

She said that she then became more active in trying to solve the problem. While she and her husband were investigating outfitters, she found herself in an unlikely partnership with environmental organizations. Thinking that the federal government was on the side of the people, her research only led her to believe that the White House was inseparable from the energy industry. She became overwhelmed by the problem of taking on a multi-billion dollar industry. She has had little luck in finding lawyers to help her tackle the issues, and the media attention she has gained has upset workers in her area to the point where her family has been threatened.

The only positive turning point has come about through discussions with Colorado state officials. The Colorado Oil and Gas Commission has been restructured by the state Legislature to include non-industry participants, and there is some hope that the oil and gas laws will be rewritten.

Amos said that we need to continue drilling but the drilling should be done responsibly. She said that the industry tried to pay for public approval by donating money for local causes and buildings. People should do their own research on the oil and gas industry and get to know the regulations and attend the Gas Commission meetings.

Glenn Yoder, treasurer of FRERC, gave a short summary of the group’s funding to date. Donations totaled $15,440, with expenses of $2,157. A recent benefit concert raised $1,300. The organization estimates it would need close to $50,000 to prepare an adequate response to the environmental assessment. If the group gets halfway to the goal, it plans to start working on research for the response, he said.
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