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Groups Target EPA For Not Safeguarding Rocky Mountain West

Outdated standards, air pollution from drilling endanger communities, climate
July 2, 2008
Denver, CO — 
A coalition of groups today announced their intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over its nationwide failure to keep families and communities safe from air pollution produced by oil and gas drilling.

The 60-day notice of intent to sue was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of numerous Rocky Mountain and national conservation groups.

"Federal clean air safeguards for oil and gas drilling have failed to keep pace with technology and science, putting our children, communities, and climate at risk," said Jeremy Nichols, Director of Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action. "Oil and gas drilling should not come at the expense of our health and our future generations."

Oil and gas drilling releases a number of harmful air pollutants, which make the skies smoggier and more toxic to breathe throughout the United States, and fuel global climate change. Making things worse, federal clean air standards for oil and gas drilling are outdated and illegal, endangering public health and the climate.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to periodically review and update clean air regulations. In the case of the oil and gas industry, the EPA has failed to review and update three sets of clean air regulations, some of which were last reviewed in 1999 and some as long ago as 1985.

The result is that a number of operations related to oil and gas drilling are unregulated, while many others are allowed to spew harmful air pollution without using the latest technologies to safeguard public health and the climate.

In the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, where oil and gas drilling is booming, the impact of the EPA's footdragging is staggering.

In Garfield County in western Colorado near the resort town of Aspen, oil and gas drilling has increased by more than 132 percent since 2004 and there are now more than 7,000 wells. Oil and gas operations release 77 percent of the area's benzene -- a known carcinogen -- into the air. This increase is because outdated federal clean air regulations do not apply to oil and gas wells.

Studies by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment show that residents of Garfield County face higher health risks because of benzene, while a recent risk assessment found that benzene in the air posed an "unacceptable" cancer risk.

Dee Hoffmeister, a resident of Garfield County, Colorado, is a victim of the increased air pollution. Four oil and gas wells have been drilled within 800 feet of her home. In 2005, she passed out after a cloud of gas appeared outside of her home. She has since become disabled with chronic weakness, dizziness, nausea, pain, burning skin, and breathing difficulty. Air samples from her home found benzene and other toxic air pollutants released by drilling.

"It's unconscionable that outdated federal regulations have allowed the oil and gas industry to spew benzene and other toxic pollutants into the air my family and I breathe," said Hoffmeister. "The EPA's footdragging is abhorrent, we need the strongest, most up-to-date clean air regulations to keep our families and our communities safe."

In San Juan County in northwestern New Mexico, there are more than 18,000 oil and gas wells. The region is the largest producing natural gas field in the United States. Many wells in San Juan County produce hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs. At low levels, hydrogen sulfide can cause difficulty breathing, nausea, and headaches; at high levels, it can cause loss of consciousness and even death.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management reports there are more than 375 wells that release hydrogen sulfide in San Juan County. This is due in part to the fact that federal clean air regulations only limit hydrogen sulfide emissions from large natural gas processing plants and oil refineries, but not from individual oil and gas wells.

Shirley McNall, a resident of Aztec in San Juan County, has experienced hydrogen sulfide pollution firsthand. There are at least 20 wells within three fourths of a mile of her home and a well pad within 500 feet. For two and a half months in 2005, amid strong hydrogen sulfide odors, she experienced sore throats, headaches, dizziness, and muscle weakness.

"Like hydrogen sulfide, the EPA's footdragging stinks," said McNall. "For our health and our future, clean air regulations for the oil and gas industry need to be brought into the 21st Century."

Both women's stories are presented in the report, "Drilling Down: Protecting Western Communities from the Health and Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Production," authored by Natural Resources Defense Council and Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action.  Read the report.

Oil and gas drilling also has been linked to rising smog levels in western Wyoming and metropolitan Denver, haze in pristine wilderness areas and national parks, and climate change. Drilling releases large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

"In the face of booming oil and gas drilling, the Rocky Mountain west is facing its most significant air quality challenges ever," said Nick Persampieri, an Earthjustice attorney. "We can't meet these challenges if we don't have updated clean air safeguards."

Coalition groups include Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action (Colorado), Powder River Basin Resource Council (Wyoming), San Juan Citizens Alliance (Colorado and New Mexico), and the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (Colorado and Montana), along with national groups the Environmental Integrity Project, and Natural Resources Defense Council.

These groups are  represented by Earthjustice, a national public interest environmental law firm.  

Read the notice of intent to sue

Background Information

  • In violation of the Clean Air Act, the EPA has failed to review and update three sets of clean air regulations related to oil and gas drilling.
  • The first regulations are called "New Source Performance Standards," and ensure that sources of air pollution use the latest technology to reduce any pollutants that endanger public health and welfare, such as hydrogen sulfide. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must review and update New Source Performance Standards every eight years. Standards for oil and gas operations were first promulgated in 1985 and have not been updated since. The 1985 regulations only limit air pollution from natural gas processing plants, not from oil and gas wells. They also do not address greenhouse gases or global warming pollution.
  • The second regulations are called "Maximum Achievable Control Technology" standards, and ensure that industry reduce toxic air emissions --such as benzene -- using the most effective technology available. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must review and update Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards every eight years. Standards related to oil and gas operations were first promulgated in 1999 and have not been updated since. The 1999 regulations do not address toxic air pollution from a number of operations related to oil and gas drilling.
  • The third regulations are called "Residual Risk" standards, and ensure that industry reduces toxic air emissions to safeguard public health.  Residual Risk standards are typically stronger than Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards. Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA must establish Residual Risk standards within eight years of promulgating Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards. It has been nine years since standards related to oil and gas drilling were set. Currently, there are no regulations that explicitly protect public health from toxic air pollution produced by oil and gas drilling.  

Contact:

Jeremy Nichols, Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action, (303) 454-3370
Nick Persampieri, Earthjustice, (303) 996-9617