Alarming new data on the toxic air pollutants near oil and gas operations

Three communities in the West recently embarked on pilot citizen air monitoring projects in response to government inaction on repeated reports of strong odors and, in some cases, health symptoms. The communities were trained in air sampling and monitoring by Global Community Monitor, a non-profit organization that helps communities establish "Bucket Brigades" to conduct their own air quality monitoring. Global Community Monitor partnered with the San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Western Colorado Congress to help organize the community-based bucket brigades.

Yesterday, Global Community Monitor released a report with the alarming results of the air sampling in the San Juan Basin of northwest New Mexico and southwest Colorado, and in Garfield County, Colorado. According to the report, analysis by a certified lab detected: "a total of 22 toxic chemicals in the air samples, including four known carcinogens, as well as toxins known to damage the nervous system and respiratory irritants. The chemicals detected ranged from 3 to 3,000 times higher than what is considered safe by state and federal agencies." The pollutants of concern in these locations include benzene, a known carcinogen, and hydrogen sulfide, which can be fatal. The test results are available on Global Community Monitor's website.

The evidence has been mounting in recent years that oil and gas exploration and production operations can generate dangerous amounts of toxic air pollutants. Communities around the country have reported health symptoms in adults, children, and livestock that they believe are linked to hazardous air pollutants. Because government agencies have not been aggressively monitoring air emissions near oil and gas operations, or taking action to protect citizens with health symptoms, communities find themselves having to take on this responsibility themselves. This is not the way it should be.

Fortunately, on a related note, there is some good news for one community living near oil and gas operations in the Los Angeles Basin. My colleague Damon Nagami reports in his blog that NRDC litigation has led to an agreement that will reduce the number of new oil wells drilled in the Baldwin Hills, increase air quality monitoring, and require recurring health and environmental justice assessments as new drilling progresses.

Communities shouldn't have to resort to litigation or to learning how to monitor air quality themselves in order to protect the health of their families or their children. Unfortunately,  air quality rules for oil and gas operations--and their enforcement--are much too weak and citizens are doing what they can to fight toxic pollution.

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