Colorado's health department responded to questions by email about how the state tracks health complaints from people in drilling areas. The department's spokesman said the state had insufficient data to show a relationship between drilling and health issues. "There continues to be much interest in the potential health effects of gas production activities," wrote Mark Salley. "This department will continue to work with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to protect the public's health."
* * *
In September 2009, Range Resources began drilling a natural gas well near the home of Beth Voyles in one of the most heavily drilled counties in southwestern Pennsylvania. The following spring, Range began filling a giant waste impoundment near Voyles' home, and wastewater accumulated in puddles on the dirt roads, where the water was sprayed to hold down the dust, according to a lawsuit Voyles filed against the state and interviews with ProPublica. The family immediately noticed a stench, and its dog, which lapped the fluid from the puddles, got sick.
A veterinarian determined that the dog had been exposed to ethylene glycol, a component of antifreeze that is also used in hydraulic fracturing. The dog's organs began to crystalize, and ultimately failed, the vet told Voyles, and the family had to euthanize the dog. A short time later the family had to euthanize a horse after it exhibited similar symptoms, Voyles told ProPublica. "If it's crystalizing their organs," Voyles said of her animals, "just how long before it's going to do that to us?" Then the whole family started getting rashes, aches and blisters in their noses and throats. Her doctors couldn't pinpoint what was causing their symptoms.
"You feel like you're drugged because your brain's not thinking," she said. "We want our life back."
When Voyles began to suspect drilling might be the cause, she had her doctors run blood tests for chemicals known to be used in the processes. The results came back showing high levels of benzene, toluene and arsenic.
In August 2010, after several complaints from the area, according to Voyles' lawsuit, the state Department of Environmental Protection asked Range to treat the impoundment pond for hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas that can be fatal at high levels and cause nausea, vomiting and headaches in lower amounts. The impoundment was briefly emptied in June, Voyles said, but then filled again in August. Now the rashes are back, she's lost much of her sense of smell and she says everything tastes like metal.
Voyles is suing the DEP, which she says ignored her concerns that the chemicals in her blood could be from the waste in the impoundment nearby, never advised her that its tests showed that her well water was also contaminated with an industrial solvent and never issued any violations to Range. Among the clear violations that DEP overlooked, she alleges, was that the waste impoundment did not meet minimum state regulatory requirements. Her lawsuit does not seek compensation, but asks that the agency investigate her complaints according to state regulations. The DEP did not respond to calls requesting comment.
Range Resources did not respond to a call from ProPublica about Voyles' case either. In an earlier report, the company denied there were problems with the impoundment near her home.
After seeing several medical specialists and epidemiologists, Voyles still doesn't know what to do about her family's health.
"They don't know how to treat us," she said.
* * *
In assessing Voyles' case and others like it, environmental epidemiologists warn that proximity and correlation don't add up to proof. Even when symptoms and contamination occur in the same place, they say, it doesn't necessarily mean the contamination caused the symptoms.
"You have a community where there is a putative exposure, and a community with putative illness," said Daniel Teitelbaum, a toxicologist who has spent years examining health issues around drilling and helped frame some of the early research in Colorado. "But you can't say whether the people exposed are the people who are ill."