Much of the debate about hydraulic fracturing
has focused on the impact that the controversial method of natural gas
extraction could have on water quality in upstate New York.
Some say, though, that air quality is just as
big a concern. Last week, an Albany environmental group focused attention on a
citizen-driven study in two western states that found elevated levels of
harmful chemicals in the air near gas wells and gas-handling facilities.
Based on nine one-time samples collected by
residents in Colorado and New Mexico, the study doesn't pretend to be
conclusive, but underscores concerns about the impact of gas wells and
production facilities on the health of people who live or work near them.
"This gives us a clue there's a serious
problem," said Barbara Warren, executive director of the Albany-based
Citizens Environmental Coalition, who said proposed state guidelines don't
appear robust enough.
New York state environmental officials
recently released a revised set of guidelines for natural gas drilling, and
anticipate that gas exploration companies could apply for permits
to drill 2,000 or more new wells a year in the state.
Modern drilling methods, which involve
extensive use of diesel trucks and generators and can lead
to atmospheric releases of hydrocarbons and industrial chemicals, have sparked
health worries in other states.
Those concerns will be addressed at a public
talk this week at the University of Rochester Medical
Center. Dr. Bernard D. Goldstein, a professor and former dean of the Graduate
School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh who has long been
involved in air-quality studies, will discuss the public health implications of
Katrina Korfmacher, a URMC assistant
professor of environmental medicine who organized Goldstein's talk, recently
visited Garfield County, Colorado, where there are thousands of active natural
gas wells and where a health assessment of the industry's impact has been done.
"Here, most of the conversations about
impacts have been water-related. There, the most significant issues of concern
are about air quality," Korfmacher said.
That same Colorado county that Korfmacher
visited was one of the areas where citizen air testing was done under the
auspices of California environmental justice
group Global Community Monitor. That sampling, conducted near gas wells or gas
processing facilities, found elevated levels of several toxic chemicals,
including benzene and methylene chloride.
Whether the levels would be sufficient to
cause health problems wasn't clear. But the report did cite the case of one
Garfield County family living near several drill
rigs that had to leave their home after family members experienced headaches
Warren said she worried that if a wave of new
gas-industry facilities open in New York, unsafe concentrations of such
chemicals could taint the air here.
Emily DeSantis, a DEC spokeswoman in Albany,
said the agency's proposed gas-drilling guidelines are thorough and rigorous
enough that "high-volume hydraulic fracturing can be done with minimal
effects to air quality."
Those guidelines, nearly 1,100 pages in
length, include about 130 pages dedicated to air quality and air pollution
control. DeSantis said the guidelines includes numerous provisions that will
minimize air emissions, including tight controls on diesel engines and
elimination of open-air impoundments of wastewater, a potential source of
Warren, however, said she believed the DEC is
"still operating in an information vacuum.
"DEC relied on industry submissions and
reports for its analysis of regulatory requirements. What we need is a
comprehensive assessment of the air quality impacts of these operations based
on actual air monitoring data of good quality and sufficient
quantity to be able to apply to the industry as a whole," she said.