Dr. Wolk’s stunt set a trivial tone to health panel

[Photo by Grace Hood, KUNC radio]

Oil & Gas task force meeting at 4-H Building in Greeley on January 15, 2015 [Photo by Grace Hood, KUNC radio]

The afternoon session of the Oil & Gas Task Force meeting in Greeley on Thursday (1/15)  featured the long-awaited health panel which included:

Dr. Larry Wolk of CDPHE
Dr. John Adgate of CSPH
Dr. Gabby Petron of NOAA
Ms. Dollis Wright, CEO of the consulting firm Quality Environmental Professional Associates based in Thornton.

Sharon Dunn’s first paragraph from her Greeley Tribune article sums up the health panel most appropriately.

Health care experts address oil, gas concerns at Greeley meeting of Colorado task force

Answers to the tough questions of how oil and gas drilling is affecting Coloradans’ health haven’t come easy in recent years, and there wasn’t much more clarity offered for members of the Colorado Oil and Gas task force on Thursday …

No. There wasn’t much clarity at all. That’s because the panelists made the “tough questions” harder than they have to be with too much sidestepping and pussy footing around addressing the real problem of toxic emissions.

Dr. Larry Wolk started off by trivializing the public health issue with his little stunt, complete with props:

[Task force] Members giggled a little as Dr. Larry Wolk, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, presented them with products he’d picked up at local stores: a bottle of Coke, a bottle of beer, a pack of cigarettes, a bag of Skittles, a quart of motor oil, some marijuana and a cup of caffeinated coffee.

“Which is really the worst for your health?” he asked. “Which would be worse if you ate it? Or would it be worse if we aerosoled it and breathed it? Which would be worse if you were pregnant, a child, or elderly, … or just had one Skittle versus 12 (bottles of Coke)? Is it better to smoke the marijuana or eat it?

“It’s about exposure … we want it to be simple, and we want a simple answer to the question. This is a complicated question.”

Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

His antics were totally lost on the livestream audience since there was only audio — no video.

I wasn’t expecting much from this health panel, but this nonsensical approach to public health from the executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment left a sour, metallic taste in my mouth like the effects of exposure to toxic emissions from oil & gas wells.

It’s not all that complicated. Emissions from oil & gas well sites and facilities do not contain Skittles or beer. And you can bet if those emissions contained marijuana the state would have shut them down in a hurry.

The fact is study after study has shown that emissions from oil & gas well sites and facilities contain toxic chemicals that are known carcinogens and hazardous to human health. For the sake of public health the state has a responsibility to clamp down on the toxic emissions from those well pads and sites, as they would with any other industry that was emitting toxic chemicals.

Instead the state has gone bullish on complaints departments. Last week the COGCC unveiled their new online complaints department. Now the CDPHE wants one too. Wolk’s big idea is to create a “$250,000 complaint-tracking system” and “$110,000 mobile units to investigate and monitor complaints.”

So I guess this means the reason the CDPHE currently ignores public health complaints, is because they don’t have the bells and whistles they need to track, investigate, or monitor them. Talk about kicking the can down the road …

Complaint system recommended in oil, gas panel

Colorado should create a centralized health complaint system for concerns related to oil and gas development, the state’s top health official says.

Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, made the recommendation Thursday to Colorado’s oil and gas task force, which will be making recommendations of its own to Gov. John Hickenlooper on ways to address concerns related to oil and gas development.

Wolk suggested that the group support the creation of a health complaint system that could trigger responses by health professionals, and in some cases result in environmental field sampling using a mobile monitoring unit.

Wolk was part of a panel that addressed the task force on oil and gas health issues.

Do you see what he did there? Wolk turned the need to address public health complaints into a matter that would require taxpayer expenditures which will never pass the legislature and so lack of funding becomes the perfect excuse for the CDPHE not to track, investigate, or monitor public health complaints. Then we’ll have no one to blame but the politicians and the people who voted for them. Certainly not the CDPHE. Clever man that Larry Wolk. Always one sidestep ahead of the game.

John Adgate is a researcher and teacher at the Colorado School of Public Health who worked on a health impact assessment related to proposed drilling in Battlement Mesa. He supported the idea of a centralized complaint system, saying it can allow data to be systematically analyzed.

“I think a tracking registry is key to answering long-term questions,” he said.

Said Wolk, “We need better, registry-based epidemiological studies.”

Adgate said relatively few studies directly address exposures to communities of contaminants from oil and gas development.

“There’s not a tremendous amount of evidence that can be brought to bear on this particular issue,” he said.

He said while a health-based minimum setback between oil and gas activities and homes might be a good approach, information is currently lacking to use that criteria.

Gabrielle Petron, an atmospheric scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, led an effort to take airborne measurements on the Front Range and determined that the state underestimated methane and benzene levels from oil and gas sources. She told the task force that most oil and gas sites are well run, with minimal emission problems.

“But some sites are outrageous,” with emission levels that “are kind of unbelievable,” said Petron, who described not feeling well while taking measurements downwind of one site.

She said she lives in Lafayette, where there are only 14 wells now but more may be drilled.

“I feel comfortable living next to oil and gas operations that are well-monitored and where there’s a direct number you can call if you smell something and you know there can be a quick response,” she said.

She suggested that when venting of pollutants is necessary during maintenance of oil and gas equipment, people living nearby be notified.

“People need to be more educated to reduce their self-exposure,” she said.

Overall, Dr. Petron gave a good presentation highlighting her research on toxic emissions at oil & gas well pads and facilities. And while I agree with her statement above that people should be notified of venting and flaring during maintenance operations, I don’t agree that the responsibility falls on the public to “reduce their self-exposure.”

Should we wear masks? Build bomb shelters? She didn’t elaborate. But what that implies is if flaring and/or venting is going on in your neighborhood and if the operator notifies you, then it’s up to you to leave if it makes you sick, which would require those of us living in the gaspatch to obtain second homes.

Ridiculous. It’s not up to us to flee from the toxins. It’s up to the state to regulate and inspect well sites and facilities for toxic emissions and fine the violators into compliance. As Petron pointed out, the violators are out there.

Of course, as is always the case, the panel unanimously concluded the need for — wait for it — MORE STUDIES.

All in all, the health panel was a resounding disappointment. I felt like I was caught in a time loop. Sort of like the movie Live Die Repeat where we keep watching the same scenes over and over again before we eventually realize that this isn’t going anywhere.

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One Comment on “Dr. Wolk’s stunt set a trivial tone to health panel”

  1. Barb Coddington Says:

    More studies THAT WON”T BE COMPLETED, let alone comprehensive.
    Thanks Peggy.

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