n the spring of 2003, almost two years after the Amos well blew its top, Laura and Larry Amos were vacationing in Key West, Florida. Laura had been feeling unusually thirsty and her body seemed swollen -- problems she attributed at first to the stresses of new motherhood. But during a day of snorkeling, she began to wonder if something else was wrong. "I could hardly get my breath," she says. Even with a flotation device, she remembers, "I could barely make it back to land."
It turned out that Amos had extremely high blood pressure and dangerously low potassium levels, but her physician back in Colorado was unsure of the cause. Several office visits and weeks of worry later, a doctor in a nearby city diagnosed her with Conn syndrome, a benign tumor in one of her adrenal glands. After surgery that removed the tumor and the entire gland in July 2003, Amos's blood pressure and potassium levels quickly returned to normal.
The National Organization for Rare Disorders classifies Conn syndrome as a rare, or "orphan," condition, one affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the United States, and at first Amos blamed her health problems on a stroke of bad luck. But in the summer of 2004, she ran across a memo to a Colorado office of the U.S. Forest Service, written about two years earlier by Theo Colborn, author of the 1996 book Our Stolen Future and an internationally recognized expert on hormone-disrupting chemicals (see "Hundreds of Man-Made Chemicals Are Interfering With Our Hormones and Threatening Our Children's Future" by Gay Daly, OnEarth, Winter 2006). Colborn's memo described the possible health effects of a solvent called 2-butoxyethanol (2-BE), known by the EPA to be used in some fracturing operations. The clear solvent is odorless and tasteless at low concentrations, and it can be swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. Colborn reported that 2-BE was associated with higher-than-normal incidences of adrenal tumors in rats and mice and calculated that potentially toxic concentrations of 2-BE could contaminate domestic water wells near fractures.
"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, did they use this?' " says Amos. She called Colborn, who also happens to live in western Colorado.
Colborn says that when she wrote the memo, she was concerned about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on domestic water supplies, but hadn't expected associated health problems to crop up for a decade or more. "Then there was this sweet, lovely voice, telling me she had developed a rare adrenal tumor," Colborn remembers. "It sent chills up and down my spine."
Even so, Colborn's first words were cautionary. "I made it very clear to her that I will never say that 2-BE caused her tumor," Colborn says. "But I am concerned. It is a very rare tumor, and she was in a physical condition where her hormonal system was hyperactive -- she had recently had a baby. She would have been what we would call the sensitive population."
When Amos went public with her suspicions in late 2004, representatives of the Canadian company EnCana, which had bought Ballard Petroleum in 2001, told the press that they did not believe 2-BE had been used in fracturing operations near the Amos home. The official state report on the incident, published in January 2005, tells a different story. About five weeks after the Amos well turned into a geyser, a contractor opened a shallower fracture on the well pad next to the Amos property. And it used the fracturing additive 2-BE.
Is it possible that this dose of 2-BE found its way into the Amos well? "My answer to that is no," says state oil and gas commission director Macke. Instrument records kept by the company, he says, would have revealed any problems with the gas well during fracturing. But School of Mines geologist Thyne thinks even a small crack in the underground rock could have quietly sent a trickle of fracturing fluid into the Amoses' nearby well. "We've just never had a situation where we tested [water] wells on a short enough time scale to see it happen," he says. In November 2004, tests of the Amos water for 2-BE came up clean, but they were a largely futile gesture: Three and a half years had passed since the water well had blown.
Laura Amos channeled her fear and anger into action. She testified at hearings of the oil and gas commission, buttonholed state legislators and congressional representatives, and spent hours strategizing with other activists about how to protect Rocky Mountain residents from the impacts of the gas boom. From as far away as Alberta, Canada, people with similar worries about fracturing -- and a variety of health complaints -- called her to share their stories and suspicions. One reporter dubbed Amos "the Erin Brockovich of Garfield County."
But the wizardry of hydraulic fracturing delivers natural gas to the nation, and it has powerful friends -- notably in the White House. The 2001 report from Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force specifically cited the value of hydraulic fracturing. The Los Angeles Times reported in October 2004 that Halliburton, Cheney's former company, which earns about $1.5 billion each year from hydraulic fracturing and is one of the country's three dominant fracturing-services companies, had lobbied against federal regulation. Industry groups, such as the Domestic Petroleum Council and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, supported a provision in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that exempted fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In the spring of 2005, Amos spent several days in Washington, D.C., as part of a group of Rocky Mountain activists lobbying against the proposed fracturing exemption in the federal energy bill. When Jim Jeffords, the Independent senator from Vermont, later introduced the Hydraulic Fracturing Safety Act of 2005, which would have limited the ingredients in fracturing fluids to nontoxic products, he recounted her story on the Senate floor. "It is unconscionable to allow the oil and gas industry to pump toxic fluids into the ground," Jeffords told his colleagues. But the Jeffords bill went nowhere, and when the federal energy bill passed last July, it included the hydraulic fracturing exemption, explicitly prohibiting only the use of diesel fuels. "Basically, there's a handful of people who have been seriously threatened by this practice standing up against a multi-hundred-billion-dollar industry," says NRDC's Olson.
Though environmentalists applaud the prohibition on diesel fuel, historically a common ingredient in fracturing fluids, they point out that the ban will have little actual impact: The three largest hydraulic-fracturing companies had already signed a voluntary agreement with the EPA to eliminate diesel fuel from fracturing in coal beds, and the majority of fracturing jobs in tight-sands formations already eschew diesel. "Diesel is just the tip of the iceberg," says Sharon Buccino, a senior attorney with NRDC. "The real problem is that we just don't know what else is being used."
Olson says the flawed EPA report played a crucial role in the congressional debate. "Time and time again, we heard from congressional staffers, 'Well, the EPA doesn't think this is a problem, so you're just overreacting,' " he says. "The report clearly gave the oil and gas industry cover to lobby for this thing."
For EPA whistleblower Weston Wilson, this was especially galling. Wilson has retained his post at the agency and even continues to work on oil and gas projects in Utah. But EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley, a Clinton appointee, dropped her investigation into Wilson's complaints in January -- and shortly afterward announced her resignation. In a letter to Representative Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, one of several members of Congress who had requested the investigation, Tinsley said that her decision to end the probe was the result of the energy bill's exemption of hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
"Congress has blocked the agency from doing what it should, by law, be required to do," says Wilson. "I'm afraid Congress was misled by the EPA's inappropriate conclusion that this was benign."
Laura Amos and her family recently reached a settlement with EnCana -- the terms of which she is barred from discussing -- and moved away from Silt. In March, the state oil and gas commission fined EnCana a total of $176,800 for the contamination of the Amos well and another nearby water well with methane gas; however, it stated that the contamination was due not to hydraulic fracturing but to other problems with the gas well. Though EnCana has decided not to contest the fines, company spokesman Doug Hock says that "there is no evidence linking drilling activity [on the nearby well pad] with the presence of methane in the Amos well."
Amos will never know if hydraulic fracturing caused her adrenal tumor. She will never be certain if she was exposed to 2-BE or other toxic chemicals as she breastfed her daughter. The gas drilling near her home, and the complex events that followed, have filled her life with anxiety.
Wilson, who unsuccessfully tried to convince the EPA to investigate the Amos case, says citizens in such situations rarely have the data or technical skills to track down the answers they need. "There's a true mystery here," he says. "She was sick. But why?"
The state of Colorado is now collecting baseline water-quality data in some of its most active gas fields, including the Piceance, but it still does not require domestic water wells to be tested before gas wells are drilled nearby. "Can we design a gas field that's 100 percent safe? No," says Geoffrey Thyne. "The question is, how far do we go in making it safe? Garfield County -- lucky Garfield -- is right at the forefront of this discussion."
"Wouldn't it be great to get ahead of this problem?" Thyne asks. "What if the industry said, 'You know what, even if there's a one-in-a-million chance of something like this happening, we'll go green. We'll make sure there's nothing in the frac'ing fluid that could ever cause health problems.' " But for now, residents of the Piceance and elsewhere must count on the goodwill of the state, or the industry itself, to protect supplies of clean drinking water.
"The most precious thing we have here in the West is our potable water, and we have very little left," says Theo Colborn, who continues to research the contents of hydraulic fracturing fluids. "To inject something like [2-BE] underground, without knowing what was going to happen -- I just can't believe we would do something so stupid."