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Boom in gas drilling fuels contamination concerns in Colorado

Some scientists and citizens want firms that extract natural gas to reveal what chemicals they’re using.

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“There is little reason to continue the exemption,” says Representative DeGette in a phone interview. “Communities have a right to know what is potentially threatening their water.”

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Energy industry officials say there’s no evidence that hydraulic fracturing contaminates groundwater or threatens public health.

“This is an answer in search of a problem,” says Doug Hock, a spokesman for EnCana, the firm that is drilling near Bracken’s land. “Chemicals in themselves do not create risk; risk is created when the proper technology and procedures are not in place. We take very stringent precautions.”

Colorado fined EnCana $371,000 – the largest fine in state history for a drilling-related incident – after finding the company responsible for the 2004 gas seep in Divide Creek. But the state is allowing drilling to continue in the area.

The proposed federal legislation would only increase the regulatory burden on industry but do little to protect human health, suggests Dollis Wright, a public-health consultant who has conducted studies for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “There are groups out there that are listing chemicals found in the fluids, and they always say such and such chemical causes cancer.

Well, just because a chemical is in the fluids does not mean it is going to get into your water. And if it gets into your water, it does not mean that it is going to cause harm,” she says. “It may have to be inhaled, rather than drunk, to cause the negative effects they cite.”

Others argue the legislation is well past due. “If you don’t know what you are looking for, it is hard to do analysis,” says Susan Griffin, a toxicologist with the US Environmental Protection Agency in a phone interview. “There are a lot of good scientific tools out there, but we need opportunities to apply them. Those opportunities don’t exist right now.”

‘Fracing’ to blame for explosion?

Ben Bounds, for one, would like additional assurances about fracing’s safety.

In the summer of 2007, methane seeped from his domestic well and exploded inside his pump house. The explosion lifted the pump-house roof off the frame and melted or singed everything inside. A few days later, a state inspector with a methane detector investigated the Bounds property in rural Huerfano County, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

“When he opened the door to the garage, the detector went absolutely crazy,” says Mr. Bounds.

While 50 methane drilling wells and active hydraulic fracturing operations are nearby, a lack of independent monitoring and testing has made it impossible to prove that fracing created pathways for methane to collect in Bounds’s domestic water system.

Bounds and his family immediately evacuated the home, and they’ve had to evacuate many times since when detectors Bounds installed have signaled the presence of methane.

The state advised that Bounds not allow his grandchildren or any visitors to come to the property, and his insurance company has threatened to drop coverage. He has thought about simply
abandoning the home since he could not in good conscience sell the property.

“Why are they allowed to keep this a secret? That’s not right,” Bounds says. “It only seems like common sense to me that they would have to release the contents of those fluids and prove they aren’t causing problems.”