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Erie’s air is worse than L.A.’s for oil and gas pollution


My, how a little science can change the equation.

Last month, the Erie Board of Trustees rejected the idea of imposing a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling to address citizens’ concerns that hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking”—had led to a rash of health problems. They preferred to implement new water and air monitoring and to work with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to explore Erie-specific requirements on future drilling permits.

But then Erie resident April Beach—a member and spokeswoman for Erie Rising, an anti-fracking grassroots group—stumbled across a year-old report by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration showing that the air in Erie is more polluted with drilling-generated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than major metro areas like Pasadena, Calif., and Houston, Texas. VOCs such as ethane, propane and butane—byproducts of oil and gas operations—are found in Erie’s air at up to (and sometimes exceeding) 10 times the volume as can be found in those cities.

“For ethane, you’re seeing average levels on the order of 50 parts per billion and I will tell you now, that’s a very large number,” NOAA researcher Dr. Steve Brown, who was involved in the 2011 study, told the trustees at Tuesday’s meeting. “Levels on the order of 20-30 parts per billion, even at night, are very large levels of a compound like propane.

“Propane is much, much larger in Erie than it is in major urban areas elsewhere and that’s a clear signature that we’re impacted by the oil and gas (operations),” he said.

Ethane, propane and butane are all explosive in the right gas/air mixture. Exposure to propane can produce symptoms such as dizziness, bloody noses, nausea and vomiting, unconsciousness and damage to the central nervous system, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The study, which was conducted over the course of a month last spring, wasn’t initially meant to study how drilling causes air pollution. The scientists initially wanted only to better understand how weather and temperature affected the habits of certain pollutants and to study the composition of Denver’s infamous “brown cloud.” But because of the high level of data collected on the composition of Erie’s air—data that included wind speed and direction, and which took into account pollution migrating from Denver—it was expanded to include a study of emissions from the oil and gas industry.

The study was never made public and it’s only through Beach’s curiosity that it came to light at all.

“I had no clue what I was looking for” when she called NOAA asking if anyone had studied air pollution in Erie, she said. She called Brown, whose name she found on the NOAA website, on something of a whim. He sent back pages of technical data indecipherable to most laymen and it took some back and forth with him to have it interpreted. When she showed the study to Erie Town Administrator A.J. Krieger, she said he urged her to have Brown present the trustees with the results.

It’s safe to say that many trustees were stunned by the high levels of alkanes (the family of oil-and-gas-related compounds that include ethane, propane and butane) in Erie’s air.

“Would you say they were extraordinarily high?” Trustee Mark Gruber asked Brown.

“You could use that language,” Brown replied.

The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to draft an emergency ordinance placing an immediate 180-day moratorium on future drilling, which will be voted on March 13. The moratorium will not affect current drilling operations taking place at 58 active well pads within two miles of downtown Erie.

What Brown couldn’t comment on were the potential health impacts of his findings. That discussion will take place tonight, March 1, at the Erie Community Center, 450 Powers St., at 6:30 p.m. Erie Rising will feature a talk by Sonya Lunder, a toxicologist and senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group. The event is free and open to the public.

Lunder’s talk was scheduled weeks ago, but it’s due to Beach’s blind luck in uncovering Brown’s report that she’ll be able to address his findings.

“It was a total shot in the dark,” Beach said. “I’m so thankful I asked. But it makes me wonder, what else do we need to know that we’re not asking for?”