Garfield County recently released a report showing air pollution is on a decreasing trend. County officials attribute the decline in part, to improvements in how oil and gas companies operate in the region. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, some county residents don’t think the numbers tell the whole story.
This month Garfield County staff presented what’s called the 2012 Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Report to county commissioners. The report features data from five collection sites scattered throughout the county.
"We’ve noticed that there has been a statistically significant decreasing trend in a number of pollutants that we monitor for," says Morgan Hill, Environmental Health Specialist for Garfield County.
Her department monitors for things like volatile organic compounds, which can be naturally occurring or the result of natural gas development. Some so-called “VOC’s” are considered a health risk, like benzene, toluene and formaldehyde. Hill says the study got going in 2008 as a response to concerns from residents.
"You know, there was certainly an oil and gas presence at that time and they wanted to know what air quality was like here."
Three sites have been collecting data for five years. Hill says monitors in Rifle, Parachute and a rural area south of Silt are showing declines.
"Some of that can be attributed to industry best practices at our sites that are maybe more influence by oil and gas, that they maybe improved some of their technologies, which led to some of the decreases we were seeing," she says.
Doug Hock is a spokesman for the Encana Corporation. With more than 3000 wells in Garfield County, Encana is one of the largest operators on the Western Slope.
"The technology evolves all the time and there are always new things that are coming out and new opportunities to reduce emissions and we’ve tried to do that very proactively," he says.
He says the company’s done a number of things to cut down on emissions including installing units on tanks that store condensate or hydrocarbon liquids.
"Volatile organic compounds come off of those tanks, so in order to reduce or eliminate that, we have a combustion unit that combusts those fumes. Because we’ve been doing this for some time, we’ve been able to reduce our VOC emissions to the tune of 2500 tons per year."
Many of the things Encana does to cut down on emissions are now required of all oil and gas operators in the state after the State’s Air Quality Control Commission passed new rules in February.
Still, Battlement Mesa resident Bob Arrington says improved industry technology is just one piece of the puzzle.
"The oil and gas companies have improved some of their technology in some areas but, they’ve also had much lesser numbers of equipment out in the field," he says.
Arrington is a member of the industry watchdog group, the Grand Valley Citizens’ Alliance. Natural gas production has slowed in the County because prices have dropped. In fact, this year Encana doesn’t plan to drill any new wells at all.
While a slow-down in the industry may be playing a role in lower pollution readings, Arrington points to other reasons too. He’s concerned about the location of the air reading collection equipment itself.
"Even the monitoring stations, like the one in Rifle has a problem because it’s set down in the Valley between two tall bluff areas. And, even though it’s on the second story roof of a downtown building, a lot of the air patterns can go right over the top of it."
Though Garfield County’s data shows pollutants falling since 2008, there was a slight increase in 2013. County officials can’t pinpoint a reason for the escalation. Another, separate analysis of the county’s air quality is now underway; this one conducted by Colorado State University. It’s looking specifically at emissions released during the drilling of natural gas.