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Paonia Nonprofit Starts Unusual Oil & Gas Air Pollution Study

There’s a small army of citizen scientists just over the mountains from Carbondale. 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.

Editor's note: Below is a transcript of reporter Elise Thatcher's story. 

Alison Gannett: “Bluebell!”

Reporter: 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.

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

Reporter: That buzzing in the background is a pump constantly sucking in air. It’s in Gannett’s bright orange and grey backpack. The idea is to take samples, for twenty four 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.

Gannett: “The industry has said you can’t prove that someone proved that someone actually breathed that air. 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.”

Jim Ramey: “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.”

Reporter: That’s Jim Ramey.  He’s Director of Citizens for a Health Community, which 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 are 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. It hasn’t been easy.

Ramey: “A lot of the residents who have been wearing the backpacks are thinking, “Well can’t I just sent 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.”

Reporter: 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.

David Ludlam: “If the study is meant to establish baselines and collect data, then we applaud them for that.”

Reporter: David Ludlam is Executive Director of 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.

Alison Gannett: “I have a brain tumor right now. 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. 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.”

Reporter: 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.

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