Study Raises Concerns About Toxic Oil and Gas Emissions in California Air

An infrared camera, air sampling and surveys reveal that methane and toluene are among the contaminants showing up in Kern and Ventura counties.

The community of Lost Hills, California, circled in blue, is directly west of the Lost Hills oil field. New study finds that residents there are elsewhere are being exposed to dangerous air contaminants associated with oil-and-gas production. Source: Google/Earthworks

The infrared video showed an eerie scene: waves of volatile chemicals floating from the vent pipes of an oil-and-gas processing plant in the Lost Hills region of Kern County, Calif. The gas wafting into the air looked like heat shimmering off asphalt on a hot summer's day.

The fumes are invisible to the naked eye, yet the special camera employed by researchers working with two environmental advocacy groups revealed the toxic emissions that flow from the facility every day it operates.

Based on the infrared camera video, air sampling and health surveys, a study by Earthworks and Clean Water Fund has concluded that the communities of Lost Hills and Upper Ojai in Ventura County are being exposed to dangerous air contaminants associated with oil-and-gas production.

These contaminants, which include toluene and methane, could pose a health risk based on long-term exposure, according to the 56-page report, "CALIFORNIANS AT RISK: An Analysis of Health Threats from Oil and Gas Pollution in Two Communities."

The findings also warn that people in other California communities could be subjected to similar emissions released during oil-and-gas development. The report says 5.4 million people, or 14 percent of California's population, live within one mile of a well.

Researchers used an infrared camera to detect and record invisible emissions from oil and gas facilities. Credit: Earthworks/Clean Water Fund

"As long as oil-and-gas facilities function, communities will be at risk," the study said.

Emissions generated by oil-and-gas operations, especially during the hydraulic fracturing drilling process, have recently begun generating as much concern as the effects of the process on ground water contamination.

From May to September 2014, Earthworks and Clean Water Fund, both based in Washington, D.C., teamed with community members in Lost Hills and Upper Ojai to perform an exploratory health assessment related to oil-and-gas development.

The two locations were selected based on conversations with community members who said they smelled hydrocarbon odors or had experienced health problems because of proximity to an oil-and-gas facility.

Residents surveyed in both communities reported symptoms consistent with contaminants associated with oil-and-gas development that were detected though air sampling. The complaints included nosebleeds, headaches, sinus problems and skin rashes.

"This data raises serious questions about what chemicals California residents are being exposed to, and at what levels," Jhon Arbelaez, the California organizer, said upon release of the report.

The Earthworks and Clean Water Fund study said the results suggest the potential risk to human health, yet acknowledges its investigation was limited because the frequency of testing and the number of samples was small.

Researchers took five air samples in each location using a Summa canister, a stainless steel tube specially designed to prevent contamination. The samples were analyzed by a certified laboratory using standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Public Health Association.

A total of 40 residents from the two communities filled out a six-page health questionnaire that focused on exposures, health symptoms and medical history.

"Therefore, the results of this investigation must be viewed as a snapshot of air emissions and a clear warning sign of problems, not as generalizable results," the report said.

The oil-and-gas industry has previously accused Earthworks of engaging in hyperbole and promoting scientifically dubious studies.

In releasing the report, Arbelaez was joined by Lucinda Wasson, retired director of Public Health Nursing for Kern County; she expressed concern that California has conducted so little study into the potential health risks associated with emissions of volatile organic compounds by the oil-and-gas industry.  It's especially dismaying because the state is among the top oil producers in the country, they said.

"We know pollutants exist," Wasson said. "We know California has not looked into health threats and risks to those living along the fence line of oil and gas production.  Health impacts must be looked at by health experts."

The Earthworks researchers are urging state officials to conduct an independent study to understand how oil-and-gas development is affecting Californians, especially in low-income communities they say are particularly vulnerable. This includes long-term exposures, cumulative exposures and the effects of exposure to multiple contaminations over the short- and long-term.

The researchers are calling on the state's Department of Public Health to study the possible health risks and to assume the responsibility for addressing the consequences of oil-and-gas emissions.

Ronald Owens, a public health spokesman, said it is the department's policy not to comment on studies generated outside of the agency. He declined to comment when asked if the department would engage in the sweeping study called for by Earthworks and Clean Water Action.

The report also criticized the state's Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources, the agency responsible for regulating the industry. That agency has failed to address the negative consequences of oil-and-gas development, allowing the industry to operate throughout the state without adequate oversight, according to the report.

Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the regulatory agency, said the organization has no responsibility for monitoring emissions. That duty, he said, rests with local agencies.

Oversight of emissions now rests with 35 local air pollution control districts or air quality management districts; the study concludes this leads to inconsistent regulations throughout the state, with varying levels of enforcement among districts.

While the infrared camera video showed emissions from several oil-and-gas facilities, air sampling near the two communities revealed the presence of 15 compounds known to have negative effects on human health, as well as 11 other compounds for which no health data is available, according to the report.

Among the chemicals identified that affect human heath were isobutane, which can cause nose and throat irritation, coughing, and wheezing at low concentrations, and in high concentration can cause irregular heartbeat, disorientation and fainting; and n-nonane, which can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat.

Many of the compounds discovered in the emissions also contribute to climate-changing greenhouse gases.

As the results from the air sampling and health surveys showed, residents in both study communities are beset by odors and oil-and-gas development close to their homes; also, they show evidence of health problems that are consistent with the oil-and-gas contaminants detected in each community, the report indicates. Among the complaints residents reported were burning eyes, skin rashes, headaches, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting.

In 2013, Earthworks released a similar report focusing on the Eagle Ford region of south Texas. The study "Reckless Endangerment while Fracking the Eagle Ford" concluded oil-and-gas operations in the vast shale formation release chemicals into air, water and soil that endanger human health.

In Texas, where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is booming, InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity reported that air emissions from oil-and-gas waste are among the least regulated, least monitored and least understood aspects the extraction-and-production cycle.

The Earthworks study criticized California for allowing the industry to operate throughout the state without adequate oversight.

"In regulating the oil and gas industry, California agencies have failed to prioritize public health and natural resources," the report said.

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