Residents Near Gas Wells Worry About Health
By Dave Fehling, StateImpact Texas
Recent increases in oil and gas production in Texas have led to concerns about a rise in air pollution. Especially from those who live near well sites, who worry their proximity to production sites is affecting their health.
Libby Willis has a natural gas well near her Fort Worth neighborhood, which is made up of older homes on tree-lined streets.
Willis says when the drilling boom started in the area’s Barnett Shale deposits around 2005, people first just talked about the money.
“That’s what people seemed to be interested in: how much money am I going to make,” Willis said.
But now, the neighborhood group she’s active in began to wonder what the wells were doing to their city’s environment — because in just a few years, there were hundreds of them.
“Typically it’s been in Joe’s pasture as opposed to now in an urban setting in Jeff’s back yard,” Willis said. “We have over 2,050 wells.”
Residents are worried because of what scientists are finding in other states where the drilling technique called fracking has led to similar booms.
“Probably two or three years ago we started to notice we had elevated ozone values during the winter when we least expected them,” said Brock LeBaron, deputy director of the state of Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality.
Ozone, a product of smog, was mysteriously increasing in sparsely populated areas, “where we happened to notice where most of the production of oil and gas occurs,” LeBaron said.
He says Utah was able to trace the volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog to those well sites.
So the wells were producing air pollution, but would it hurt anyone?
In Colorado, where drilling was occurring in urban areas as it was in Fort Worth, public health researchers began monitoring the air.
A three-year study concluded this March that chemical vapors such as benzene were increasing the risk of health problems, including cancer, for residents within a half-mile of drill sites.
So what about Texas, in places like Libby Willis’ neighborhood?
“Frankly, I’m not aware of any health impact study linked to looking at the emissions from wells in Fort Worth,” Willis said.
With no definitive broad-based studies, critics of fracking have seized on bits of data that seem to indicate Texas has a problem.
A recent video by New York filmmaker Josh Fox said that the five counties with the most drilling in the Barnett Shale around Fort Worth saw a rise in breast cancer.
So does drilling cause breast cancer?
“There has not been a statistically significant increase in the amount of breast cancer incidence in those counties,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The department did find some ZIP codes with more breast cancer cases, but the increase was within the statistical margin of error.
And in no way could any definitive connection be made between the cancer cases and the gas wells, he said.
But what about that study in Colorado that concluded drilling did pose a health risk to nearby residents there?
“I think what it shows is a need for more research,” Van Deusen said. “That’s what we’re looking at now, what else needs to be done.”
He said that the Texas health department hasn’t decided how big a study to do but that it will aim to clarify what threat all the drilling may be posing to the Texans who live near it.