It’s another beautiful fall day in Mesa County, but it’s also the time when rabbitbrush, ragweed, juniper and other potent local allergens fill the air with pollen, making fall miserable for thousands of people who suffer from allergies. Add to this mix the clouds of black smoke from open burning that envelope entire neighborhoods, and beautiful fall days turn into days of utter despair for many western Colorado residents.
With a wide variety of retirement housing and the biggest medical center between Denver and Salt Lake, Grand Junction is a mecca for retirees. But many retirees who settle here have some degree of heart or lung disease, making them more susceptible to breathing problems and medical emergencies caused by exposure to smoke from open burning. Even healthy people who have never had a heart or lung diagnosis during their lifetime can count on losing up to 25 percent of their lung function as they age, making them more susceptible to health problems from air pollution.
A surprising number of people in Mesa County have respiratory or cardiac diseases, or use supplemental oxygen at home for heart or lung disease. In 2009, 7.5 percent of Mesa County children ages 1-14 reported having asthma, and 9.4 percent of adults in Mesa County reported having asthma during 2008-2010. In 2011, fully 58 people per 100,000 in Mesa County died from chronic lower respiratory diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and 159 people per 100,000 died from cardiovascular disease. Both of these disease states are exacerbated by exposure to air filled with smoke.
Open Burning Causes More Problems and Expense than it Solves
Contrary to popular local belief, open burning doesn’t get rid of yard or farm waste. It just changes the waste into another form — smoke — and pumps it into the air for everyone else to deal with. With burn permits ranging from just $5 to $15 per season locally (depending on the jurisdiction) the pricing of burn permits doesn’t come close covering the cost of putting out even one runaway fire caused by careless burning. From the frequent stench of the night time air, it’s also obvious that lots of people aren’t even bothering to buy permits, and instead burn illegally after dark. An obvious step cities can take to cover the cost of putting out out-of-control fires from open burning and reduce the amount of burning taking place would be to simply raise the ridiculously low price of the burn permits — something that hasn’t been done in many years.
A team of atmospheric scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado (CU) found that drilling operations for oil and natural gas in Weld County, Colorado was the “dominant wintertime source” of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air pollution emissions in that area. VOCs contribute to the formation of ozone, a constituent of photochemical smog. The researchers tested the air at a site 2.5 miles east of downtown Erie, Colorado.
In 2011, at the time of the study, Weld County had over 15,000 active gas wells. Two years later, it had 19,000. The study, titled “Source Signature of Volatile Organic Compounds from Oil and Natural Gas Operations in NOrtheastern Colorado,” was published in Environmental Science and Technology in January, 2013.
The study’s lead author, Jessica Gilman, Ph.D., said, “Average levels of propane [in the air in Weld County] were higher than the range of values reported for 28 U.S. cities. For example, they were four to nine times higher than in Houston, Texas, and Pasadena, California.”
The CU-NOAA study also found that air pollution from oil and gas emissions have a “chemical signature” that clearly differentiates them from other air pollution sources, like vehicular exhaust.
The study found that more than half of ozone-forming pollutants in Erie come from drilling activity.