Corporate Profit Trumps Public Health in Colorado Fracking Vote
What is the common curse of mankind? Folly and ignorance, observed an old English playwright. The curse was on uncommon display two weeks ago at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver.
I went there to testify in favor of a bill, House Bill 1275. It was a modest bill. It simply asked that data on Front-Range citizen complaints about fracking be collected and examined by an independent body of scientists and health professionals. A preliminary report on their findings was to be issued within a year. Presumably, this report would lead to an evaluation of the need for follow up studies to protect the public’s health and well being, as it almost certainly would have, for the air is leaden with unexamined citizen complaints of ill health from living near fracking sites. The cost was earmarked at around $300,000.
It belabors the point to remind readers, as several citizens did the legislators, that in a rational world we would investigate the health consequences of fracking on public health before we allowed the process to begin, but we don’t live in a rational world as the following events clearly demonstrate.
Leading the charge for continued ignorance and the virtues of not knowing was Dr. Chris Urbina, Governor Hickenlooper’s appointee that heads the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. Urbina said, this proposed report—which he insisted on characterizing as a study—was too short, saying it might lead to premature, unfavorable judgment of the oil industry and that we must be cautious. Dr. Urbina failed to mention in his remarks that he also sits on the board of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). The COGCC has the dual mission of promoting oil and gas development and protecting the public’s health and the environment.
Following his criticism of the bill, Urbina turned to his young confederate, a staff toxicologist who explained, on cue, how important double-blind tests are to accuracy in scientific investigations. Unmentioned was that a double-blind study is also expensive, time-consuming and the most logistically difficult type of epidemiological study. Basically, the toxicologist argued, and I don’t exaggerate, that we really couldn’t trust knowing anything until we know everything. This argument is tantamount to arguing you shouldn’t quit smoking cigarettes until you die from them, or something equally double-barreled and nonsensical. Even the Walrus understood it is better to start at the beginning, and this was to be a beginning.
Caution, sure. But the industry is drilling at least 3,000 new wells in Colorado annually with the likelihood that the annual average will increase substantially. Another 50,000 wells are already operative. And, each is spewing a variety of unmeasured chemical substances into the atmosphere, into the air we all breathe. Add to this that the industry is generating trillions of gallons of fracking wastewater of generally unknown toxic quality which is being re-injecting into the ground under the most primitive of oversight standards, with hundreds upon hundreds of significant spills being reported each year. Under these circumstances, you’d think some enterprising public health official might sound a small alarm.
Not this evening. Dr. Urbina’s solution was to unveil a new plan, unvetted and unfunded, that might take, by his estimate, five years to complete. That’s the equal of at least 21,000 new wells and trillions of gallons of dangerously corrupted fresh water that must be warehoused somewhere. Moreover, as someone has already observed such a plan would take at least seven years, if you factor in funding and review time.
So, make that at least 28,000 new wells. Even more oddly, Urbina’s plan would focus on Garfield County, Colorado rather than on the Front Range as proposed in HB 1275. Garfield County is on the west slope and several studies have been conducted there already. But no studies have been conducted on the Front Range where drilling, like some form of crazy mutant kudzu, is starting to engulf community after community.
One of the Garfield County studies by the Colorado School of Public Health, had shown that even at distances of 2,700 feet from a well site, toxic chemicals were still detectable at levels that increase the chance of developing cancer by 66 percent based on published health standards. The county government, alarmed at the preliminary results, then defunded the study. This study figured prominently is New York Governor Cuomo’s decision to initiate a moratorium on fracking in his state.
On top of that, the COGCC had tried to discredit the study because it was conducted in a rural setting and, therefore, was not really suitable as a basis for judging urban health impacts. We certainly can assume that Dr. Urbina, resident public health official on the COGCC, participated in rendering this head spinning criticism. It seems to stand for the crack-pot concept that the immunology of rural people is different than that of urban people.
But back to the hearing, several people asked for the bill to be expanded to collect health data from all areas of the state, since the issue of equal protection for those living in what are beginning to be regarded as energy colonies, if not outright oil and gas sacrifice zones, is starting to generate ethical concern from those still familiar with the concept.
Nevertheless, it was all for naught. Dr. Urbina, his toxicologist, and a swarm of oil and gas lobbyists held the field. The vote was 6-5, with one Democrat voting with the rock solid Republican minority who voted for industry jobs and profits over unproven concerns about public health. The Democrat, Dave Young, a second term representative from Weld County, the county with more than a third of the wells in the state, in a rather rambling and puzzling explanation of his vote, talked about his years as a science teacher of middle school children in Weld County and the need for compromise. Apparently, we should find in this an explanation for the low-five handshake I saw him give to an oil lobbyist as he exited down the committee room hallway.
Those speaking for the bill included the sponsor, Rep. Joann Ginal, a PhD endocrinologist. The other sponsor, a public health physician did not testify, but Boulder County public health officials did, as did a representative for the Colorado Medical Society. So too did a physician who heads a clinic in eastern Colorado.
Of the citizens from around the state testifying in favor of the bill, some had health and science backgrounds, one had headed the aborted Garfield County study, and still others, simply caught up in the maelstrom, had come to Denver hoping their elected representatives might listen to their personal stories. Instead, the majority greeted them with indifference.
The testimony of Rod Brueske, who I know personally, is illustrative of this indifference. He told how he’d moved to rural Boulder County, bought an old farmhouse to restore on the county’s dedicated Open Space land, hoping to establish a home place to raise his family. Instead he’s discovered his nearest neighbors are gas wells that constantly belch out vapors that are poisoning his family. His children have repeated nosebleeds and other health complications as a result.
Frustrated with the unwillingness of the COGCC to help him against what he considers a toxic trespass by the industry, he had blood tests performed and analyzed. The state does not and will not do citizen blood tests, just as it doesn’t represent citizens even when it determines the industry has polluted their wells. Resolution of the injury is left to the landowner.
In fact, when a state inspector showed up as a result of an early Brueske complaint, she brought only her nose, which she claimed was trained to sniff out bad air. Her nose detected nothing.
Brueske family blood tests show elevated levels of toxins which are, given their rural home, likely associated with nearby oil and gas production.
Not one member of the committee asked him a question about the health of him or his family. Is that not indifference? Socializing the health costs to protect private profit is an old game in this country. But the oil and gas boys have brought it to new levels, as they own significant segments of both parties, thus insuring continued ignorance by design.
How much proof is going to be needed to protect people like the Brueskes? I don’t know, but a recent lecture by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Tipping Point among other books, may provide a partial answer. Gladwell wondered when the requirements for “proof just became another word for letting other people suffer.” He pointed to the 50 years of shadow dancing by the coal industry and American medicine before admitting coal dust was causing black lung disease. By comparison, he said, the life insurance companies had raised life insurance rates on miners almost immediately based on personal data gathered in field surveys. HR 1275 was really about gathering a little field data.
The language of silence was palpable when HR 1275 was defeated. As people were filing out, one disgruntled citizen remarked that Urbina appeared to be such a profound mediocrity that he had a good chance to be the next governor. There was a general murmur of agreement.
Want to learn more about fracking?
On April 27, attend Be Frack Sure, an interactive, informative, day-long event. Learn from the expert testimony of scientists and professionals from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. at the Best Western Plus Plaza Hotel and Conference Center, 1900 Ken Pratt Blvd., Longmont, CO. Enjoy world-class entertainment by the Hazel Miller Band. Sponsored by Patagonia.
Dr. Anthony Ingraffea: Professor of Engineering in Cornell University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a renowned expert on fracturing mechanics and its threats.
Dr. Geoffrey Thyne: Author or co-author of over 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers, he will speak to the complexities of research and the influence of industry and government in academic settings.
Organizing Your Community: Sam Schabacker, Food & Water Watch
Health Ramifications of Water and Air Quality: Phillip Doe, (Be The Change), Wes Wilson, (Retired EPA), Shane Davis
Economic Ramifications of the Fracking Boom: Jeanne Basset (Environment Colorado) and Pete Morton
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
In celebration of Earth Day, a star-studded cast is giving fans a rare glimpse into the secret lives of some of the planet's most majestic animals: whales. In "Secrets of the Whales," a four-part documentary series by renowned National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Brian Skerry and Executive Producer James Cameron, viewers plunge deep into the lives and worlds of five different whale species.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b102b19b2719f50272ab718c44703dd0"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/xOySOlB78dM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Herring are a primary food source for Norway's orcas. Luis Lamar / National Geographic for Disney+
Belugas are extremely social creatures with a varied vocal range. Peter Kragh / National Geographic for Disney+
A Southern Right whales is pictured in the accompanying book, "Secrets of the Whales." Brian Skerry / National Geographic
The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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