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Op-ed: The air around Vernal is killing infants

By Brian Moench

First Published May 30 2014 05:23 pm • Last Updated May 30 2014 05:23 pm

Bumper stickers in Vernal say, "Honk if you love drilling." Vernal politicians certainly do. Our state lawmakers do, and our Congressional delegation does. With jobs, increased tax base, new community recreation centers, burgeoning store fronts on main street, people with money to spend — what’s not to like? Well, perhaps burying newborns.

Evidence continues to mount that state and federal regulators have allowed the creation of a pollution nightmare in the Uinta Basin. Most cities with pollution problems have either high ozone, like Los Angeles, or high particulate pollution, like Salt Lake City, depending on the time of year. But in the last few years Vernal has experienced both simultaneously, making it unique and one of the most polluted areas of the country. The two can act synergistically to impair human health.

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But the most dangerous byproducts of the oil and gas industry are the VOCs — think benzene, toluene, xylene — extremely hazardous compounds known to cause cancer and birth defects at minimal exposures. Every one of the more than 11,000 wells in the area leaks VOCs. Last month a study revealed concentrations of VOCs in the atmosphere of the Uinta Basin are equivalent to the tail pipe emissions of 100 million cars, eight times more cars than in the Los Angeles Basin. The researchers said the VOC levels were "200-300 times above regional and seasonal background" and "among the highest ever reported."

Wherever you have a pollution nightmare, be assured that if you look for it, you will find a public health nightmare right around the corner. The unprecedented VOCs concentration might be the smoking gun behind a tragic loss of infants in Vernal. Neonatal mortality has been steadily rising in Vernal for the last four years, with a marked spike in 2013, reaching a rate six times the national average. Mortality in every age group rises with increased air pollution so this is not entirely unexpected. And last week a Vernal mother contacted Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment about a rare birth defect her six-month old has that threatens her baby’s breathing. Our preliminary investigation suggests there could be 30 cases of the same birth defect in the Vernal area. Given the area population, that would be a rate seven times higher than expected.

Certainly more study is needed. But meanwhile government and industry now have the choice either to error on the side of protecting babies and public health, or hide behind the call for more study, "shoot the messenger," ignore existing evidence, obfuscate, delay, continue business as usual, and make things even worse. Let’s see which one they are choosing.

The Duchesne County Planning Commission just reduced the required set back for fracking wells from 660 to 300 feet from a residence. The amount of VOCs from just one well is equal to that from about 7,000 cars. So Duchesne children and pregnant mothers can now enjoy the air pollution equivalent to 7,000 tail pipes running 24/7 right next door. Even oil field workers opposed that.

The EPA is using word games and an irrelevant technicality to avoid enforcing national air quality standards in Vernal, because, you guessed it, "more study needs to be done." The state admits the Basin has an ozone problem, and they are willing to "study" various control strategies that would only be applied in the winter because, "We don’t want to be controlling or restricting people when it isn’t necessary."

Memo to the state: If you have the VOCs of 100 million cars in the Uinta Basin and you’re only concerned with wintertime ozone, that’s like shopping for a used car and only being concerned about a scratch in the paint job while ignoring that the car doesn’t have an engine, steering wheel or brakes.

And finally, like a cancer that won’t stop until the host is dead, the oil and gas industry have plans to add 25,000 more wells to the 11,000 already there. And no one in government seems willing to say "no" to any of them. Not even if babies are dying because of it. "Drill, baby, drill" is starting to sound like a sinister lullaby.

Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.


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