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By late 2009, stories like Wallace-Babb's had become common in Garfield County, Colo., where she had lived and the natural gas production had jumped eightfold in the previous eight years.
Rick Roles, whose ranch is dotted with gas wells and used to be near a set of large open-air waste pits, complained of intense fatigue. His eyes and throat burned relentlessly, he told ProPublica during a visit in 2008. Light work made his heart race, and, like in the case of Voyles, doctors detected benzene in his blood. Roles was a smoker, which could explain the benzene. But he also raised goats with prized bucks, and after the wells were drilled, many of the kids were stillborn or deformed.
A few miles away another woman, Laura Amos, was diagnosed with a rare adrenal tumor she believed was caused by drilling chemicals that are used in fracking. In 2001, her water well exploded with methane and gray sediment the same day drillers pumped fluids underground to frack a well nearby. By 2003 she was sick. After her lawyers obtained documents from the drilling company, EnCana, showing that the suspected chemical was used in nearby wells, Amos accepted a multimillion-dollar settlement. The terms remain confidential, except for the fact that Amos is no longer allowed to talk about her case. Colorado fined EnCana for failing to contain its drilling waste properly. EnCana has said it disagreed with the state action and that there was no proof that fracking caused Amos' well problems.
Another local couple, the Mobaldis, experienced symptoms similar to those of Wallace-Babb and Voyles, but worse. Steve Mobaldi testified about his wife's condition at a 2007 congressional hearing. "Chris began to experience fatigue, headaches, hand numbness, bloody stools, rashes, and welts on her skin," he said. "Tiny blisters covered her entire body. The blisters would weep, then her skin would peel. ... Canker-type sores appeared in her mouth and down her throat, and they would disappear the next day. ... The racking pain was unbearable."
Chris Mobaldi developed a pituitary tumor and died in 2010 from a complication in her treatment.
In response to these cases and others, state and county health officials conducted a series of monitoring projects that found that gas drilling was the area's largest source of several hazardous air pollutants, including benzene and ozone-forming emissions. For several years, with the cooperation of federal health officials, Colorado monitored air quality in Garfield County, determining repeatedly that while pollution in the area did not exceed health standards, it probably meant there was a slightly elevated risk of cancer and other health effects. But none of those steps were sufficient to help officials determine the precise risk level. They didn't have a way to systematically record health complaints or to track which residents might have been exposed to which pollutants and when—the essential link in completing an epidemiological study.
Still, the incremental studies underscored concern among residents.
When Antero Resources announced plans in the spring of 2009 to drill 200 more wells in Battlement Mesa, a golf-course community almost within sight of Wallace-Babb's old home, about 400 residents petitioned the county to study the potential health impacts before they permitted the drilling.
In February 2010, the Garfield County board of commissioners hired researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health to conduct another health impact assessment, analyzing air samples collected by federal and state officials over the years to gauge the dangers of new drilling and how best to mitigate them. Whereas previous research had analyzed samples of emissions from sites across the county, this time researchers focused on the risk to one small, well-defined area, trying to assess the potential of risk increasing over time. The researchers also were tasked with designing a long-term plan to collect data on the drilling once it began, tracing how emissions affected residents. The two-pronged effort promised to be one of the most in-depth analyses so far of gas field health effects in the nation.