Paonia Nonprofit Starts Unusual Oil & Gas Air Pollution Study

Dec 5, 2013

There’s a small army of citizen scientists in the North Fork Valley. Residents in the Paonia area are donning special backpacks for twenty-four hours at a time, to collect real time data for scientific study of air pollution.  The aim is to measure what might be getting into the air from nearby oil and gas wells.

Alison Gannett is calling one of her guard dogs. She has an impressive resume. She’s an extreme skier, sustainability consultant, and raises a variety of animals, vegetables, and fruits. That’s with her husband Jason, on Holy Terror Farm. The scary name belies a bucolic setting. And on this Monday, Gannett is taking part in an unusual scientific study.

“I am supposed to walk around doing my daily life, just like normal, and wear this backpack,” says Gannett.

There’s a pump in Gannett’s bright orange and grey backpack, constantly sucking in air. The idea is to take samples, for 24 hours, of the air she’s breathing. This differs from most air quality oil and gas studies in Colorado, which use samples taken from fixed places.

“The industry has said you can’t prove that someone proved that someone actually breathed that air,” Gannett says. “So the point of this whole study is that I wear the testing device, and it goes with me wherever I go. So, I eat with it, I cook with it, I do all the farm chores with it.”

“Until we have a really good understanding of the pre-drilling and fracking, and the post-drilling and fracking, and how that might be changing what’s in the air, we won’t really be in a position to influence change,” says Jim Ramey, Director of the Paonia-based Citizens for a Healthy Community.

The CHC recently gained attention after a successful effort to stop proposed oil and gas wells very close to, and in some cases in, the city limits of Paonia. Ramey is worried about another round of proposals to expand drilling in the area.  This study is designed to collect what’s called baseline data, information about chemicals in the air now. These data will then be compared to any changes in air quality if there are new oil and gas rigs. Ramey says it hasn’t been easy.

“A lot of the residents who have been wearing the backpacks are thinking, ‘Well can’t I just set it outside, hang it on a tree?’”

“And I have to say, ‘Well no, we’re trying to get the personal exposure to the air, and that’s why we’re doing the backpack method,’” he says.

The group has been preparing for a year to make sure volunteers know exactly what to do, to make sure the study produces reliable data.

“If the study is meant to establish baselines and collect data, then we applaud them for that,” says David Ludlam. He’s the Executive Director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

While the Paonia citizen’s group is often at odds with the mission of the industry organization, Ludlam says the more baseline data, the better. Still he is more comfortable with scientific studies where academics are calling the shots.

Across Colorado there are efforts underway to improve monitoring of air quality at drilling operations. There is also growing pressure on the state to lower the industry’s pollution, too. Governor John Hickenlooper recently suggested tightening regulations, and the state’s health department is planning public hearings early next year.

The minute-by-minute air sampling by Alison Gannett’s backpack is especially important to her. Gannett’s life literally depends on knowing how much oil and gas chemicals are in the air around her.

“I have a brain tumor right now.” she says. “One of the reasons I have a brain tumor is I have a genetic deficiency that allows me to not process chemicals like a normal person.”

“So a level of benzene that might not bother you, is gonna cause my brain tumor to grow,” Gannett says. “You know how many people are out there like me, that are extremely sensitive to chemicals, and I never even know it ‘til three weeks ago.”

The study in Paonia will tell her whether she’s safe from benzene and other oil and gas chemicals now, and how much leeway she has if new drilling starts nearby.