In a draft of the health impact assessment released in February 2011, the School of Public Health researchers concluded that without pollution control measures, emissions from drilling would likely be high enough to cause disease in Battlement Mesa, including respiratory and neurological problems, birth defects and cancer. The report said that air pollution was a greater risk than water pollution and pointed to fracking as the stage of drilling that released some of the most toxic emissions. The conclusion was starkly different from past government assessments, which were limited to determining whether pollution was dangerous at the time the samples were taken. The School of Public Health's view was that the drilling was clearly emitting carcinogens and that sooner or later this would lead to problems, according to Roxana Witter, an assistant research professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and the lead author of the study.
The authors stressed that data from the long-term monitoring phase of their research were needed to fill crucial gaps in evaluating the risks from drilling emissions, but the project wouldn't get that far.
The draft findings were immediately controversial.
"It got political," said John Martin, one of the Garfield County commissioners who oversaw the study. Martin said environmental groups wanted to use the study to stop drilling. "It got blown completely out of proportion and they took advantage of that issue to further their agenda."
The drilling industry was highly critical of the draft and its authors and pressed county officials to delay issuing its final report by extending the period for public comments. Money from outside interest groups had been flowing into elections for Garfield County commission seats, and in November 2010 a commissioner seen as a supporter of more health research was defeated.
In May, the commission decided not to extend the researchers' contract, and a final draft of the report was never produced, limiting the impact of its conclusions.
"The study wasn't finalized," said David Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. "We always have to be careful about using draft documents which haven't been finalized."
Martin, one of the commissioners who voted against paying to finish the project, said the commissioners had already gotten what they were looking for: general recommendations for how to mitigate potential health effects. If there are larger uncertainties about how drilling can affect public health, Martin said, that's for state and federal agencies to study.
"We have limitations and this is beyond the scope of what we need to be doing," he said.
For the next phase of the study—the long-term monitoring project—the county and the School of Public Health sought the help of Colorado's health department. The department had planned to apply to the EPA for funding to measure drilling emissions and track their movement as drilling progressed.
But in August, local gas drilling companies informed government officials they would not cooperate with the study unless Garfield County and the state agreed to replace Witter's team with other academic researchers and start over.
"GarCO operators have collectively decided a Garfield County air study, conducted by the Colorado Public School of Health [sic], is unworkable and one they are unable to participate in moving forward," wrote David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, in an Aug. 3 email that was forwarded to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Antero did not respond to requests for comment. In an email to ProPublica, Ludlam explained the industry wanted to see a scientific organization like Colorado State University's Department of Atmospheric Science do the work, rather than Witter. "It is less about a tangible bias and more about an overall environment of distrust in Garfield County resulting from their previous work product being politicized by outside parties," he wrote.