DENVER–Anyone listening to April Beach’s harrowing description of her family’s health problems might be tempted to introduce her to a good personal-injury lawyer.
A founder of the anti-fracking group Erie Rising, Beach says that she has suffered from the following since hydraulic fracturing began in her community: a spinal lesion, memory loss, headaches, migraines, an allergy to alcohol, body aches, weakness, acid reflux, itching, dizziness, new asthma symptoms, lethargy, and abdominal pain.
She says her husband and children have experienced their own litany of ailments. One of her sons has developed a neurological disorder that causes his muscles to twitch constantly. She’s taken in her children for a battery of tests, including CT scans, blood work, stool sampling, endoscopies and a colonoscopy for one son.
So far the tests haven’t been able to pinpoint the problem. “[N]o results, they don’t find anything,” Beach told the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at a hearing on setbacks earlier this month.
It’s impossible to listen to her story and be unmoved, but those in the pro-fracking camp argue that it’s also impossible to blame her family’s flagging health on drilling. So far the research, including groundwater testing by the Environmental Protection Agency, has shown no increased health risks from properly conducted fracking operations.
Even so, town halls and public hearings inevitably feature testimony from those who say they’ve experienced everything from headaches to blindness as a result of living near fracking wells.
Skeptics say there’s an easy way to prove whose argument is stronger: If the victims had any real proof that hydraulic fracturing was causing their medical problems, they’d take their claims to court.
“I don’t want to impugn anyone’s particular symptoms, but if your property or person is affected, you have recourse in the courts,” said William Yeatman, an energy-policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Independence Institute. “If there is a genuine medical problem, you have every right to seek remuneration.”
“Is the regulatory arena the proper place to adjudicate case-by-case allegations of medical harm? I would suggest not,” he said.
As it turns out, lawsuits against oil-and-gas companies alleging health problems from hydraulic fracturing are exceedingly rare in Colorado. Of the handful that have been filed, two were settled out of court, according to Earthjustice, while two cases filed in 2011 were dismissed.
In one case, Strudley vs. Antero Resources, the court ruled that the case lacked sufficient evidence to proceed. In the other, Evenson vs. Antero Resources, the judge threw out the case because homeowners in Battlement Mesa said they feared that the drilling would result in harm even though the company had not yet begun drilling.
Convincing a judge that hydraulic fracturing is poisoning the air or groundwater may be a tough sell, but convincing a neighborhood, city council or legislative committee is another matter. Emotional testimony from witnesses who say they suffer from nosebleeds and rashes has helped persuade councils in Boulder County, Erie and Fort Collins to impose moratoriums on fracking pending further study.
“The problem is that fear kicks in, and when you foment fear in a community, everyone looks at every possible malady and links it to the drilling activity,” said former Colorado Springs city councilman Sean Paige. “People are paying hyper-attention to any health malady that crops up near drilling. It’s like Salem in 1693. Nothing is over the edge, nothing is over the top.”
Erie Mayor Joe Wilson calls the debate “high on emotion and short on facts.”
“What has been repeatedly confirmed by scientific analyst groups who all came to the same conclusion is that our air and water are very clean and show no chronic effects whatsoever,” said Wilson at the hearing. “They’re well within the EPA guidelines and far below minimum concern levels.”
Colorado regulators “have been asked to regulate a mirage, an unproven rumor at best,” he said.
Frank Smith, director of organizing for the Western Colorado Congress, insisted that after eight years of listening to stories from those living near fracking operations, “the stories don’t change.”
“These people are here for a reason. They don’t make this stuff up. They actually genuinely experience these things,” said Smith.
The state has commissioned a $1.3 million study to investigate the effects of fracking emissions on public health. In the meantime, Beach and other foes of hydraulic fracturing want to see more extensive setbacks between drilling operations and housing.
“No one in this room can say for sure that our health issues are from oil and gas,” said Beach at the hearing. “I get that, but I also know that no one in this room can say for sure that they are not.”