Fracking and its effects on public health still debatable

Some argue fracking is making them sick

DENVER - It's the biggest environmental debate in Colorado right now: fracking. But the effects on nearby residents are still unclear.

You could call Colorado a boom state.

"In the state right now, it's 137,000 jobs," said State Senator Randy Baumgardner, (R) Northwest Colorado.

Oil production in Colorado is on the upswing. Colorado now ranks in the top 10 states for oil production, number 9 on the list producing about 152,000 barrels a day.

"We do need the industry here," said Baumgardner.

But fracking, the method of using pressurized water to fracture rock, unlock and extract oil and natural gas, is a lingering controversy.

"After we moved to Erie, my children had a lot of stomach problems," said Wendy Leonard, a mother of four.

Leonard and her husband became so concerned about the health of their children, they packed up and moved from Erie to Superior. She believes the oil wells near Erie were making her kids sick.

"We decided we weren't willing to take the risk with four small kids," she said.

So much has been made of possible public health issues surrounding fracking, we discovered there are many doctors, scientists and agencies studying it. Osteopathic Dr. John Hughes in Basalt recently conducted a study after seeing problems in patients first hand.

"They came to me and I couldn't help them. I couldn't understand why they had light sensitivity and nose bleeds," said Hughes.

In Hughes' unpublished study, he tested blood samples from eleven patients in Erie and compared those to samples taken from ten controlled patients in Carbondale.

"We basically found a high level of ethyl benzene in the patients (from Erie)," said Hughes.

"And the control group did not show those high levels of ethyl benzene," said Leonard.

"I found it pretty alarming quite frankly," said State Senator Matt Jones, (D) Louisville. "Having survived leukemia myself, I know how bad that kind of place can be. And we shouldn't be exposing people to excess levels of chemicals."

But a competing study commissioned by the town of Erie and conducted by the environmental firm, Pinyon Environmental of Lakewood, measured levels of emissions last summer near wellheads in Erie. It found, "...concentrations of various compounds (ethane, propane, butane and benzene)... comparatively low and not likely to raise significant health issues..."

It also found, "...a lifetime of exposure to those levels were unlikely to result in adverse health effects for people."

"If you want to talk to an environmentalist, go talk to a rancher or a farmer," said Baumgardner.

He said the practice of fracking has been used in Colorado since the 1940's. It's only now making headlines because as technology has evolved, fracking has become more frequent in horizontal and directional drilling. While the debate exists about levels of benzene in the air, Baumgardner said ground water contamination is highly unlikely.

"To my knowledge, there has never been any water ever contaminated from fracking."

According to the oil and gas industry, the water we drink is anywhere from 300 to 1,000 feet below the Earth's surface. Fracking takes place anywhere from 9,000 to 15,000 feet below ground.

"For that substance to get back up through all the rock strata to the aquifers is, I won't say it's impossible, but it's highly unlikely," said Baumgardner.

Leonard says she's not entirely sure what made her kids sick.

"But after we did move, things have drastically improved," she said. The Obama Administration is now proposing new fracking rules, including requiring companies to report what chemicals they use while drilling. 

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