(EnviroNews DC News Bureau) — Vernal — Good evening. I’m Heather Murdock reporting to you on EnviroNews USA tonight from Los Angeles, in an absolutely packed episode that is sure to be a shocker for those concerned about air quality, climate change and human health.
In response to national news in late May that pointed to a potential cluster of stillborn births in the heavily drilled and fracked Uintah Basin, we take you inside a leaky and sadly typical oil well in this vastly exploited area.
Three separate and very interesting things have happened over the past few months, and what makes them even more interesting is the timing, and the fact that they all happened within such a short period.
Sequentially speaking, the second and most recent thing that happened, is that a midwife in the highly conservative oil patch community of Vernal Utah in the Uintah Basin observed something — a ghastly discovery that apparently no state or federal agencies, nor even the local TriCounty Health Department had yet observed– dead babies, and way too many of them.
Newsweek broke the story about Donna Young and the apparent cluster of stillborn Uintah Basin babies, and it turned out that the midwife of 19 years had put two and two together after experiencing the first stillborn birth in her nearly two decades of practice — then subsequently noticing abundant newborn graves in the local cemetery.
She then began to do her own research by tracking infant obituaries in the local Uintah County paper, and what she found turned out to be very shocking indeed.
Upon further examination, her observations revealed the stark fact that the heavily fracked and drilled Vernal area had just witnessed an elevation in infant deaths — rising from numbers that closely resembled the national average back in 2010, to a number six times that by 2013.
The Uintah Basin has undergone a massive boom in oil and gas development in the last several years — a boom that like the explosion in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale has lead to an increase in oil production by hundreds of percent, in just a few short years.
So, having noted that very scary situation in Vernal brings us to our second very interesting thing that happened in the past few months, only it happened first. On March 13th of this year, in an ACS Journal, Environmental Science & Technology article, it was revealed that researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder had conducted a two year study that cited that the volatile organic compounds, or VOC’s in the Uintah Basin were completely off the charts.
The number of VOC’s floating around in the Uintah Basin airshed was so high in fact, that as part of the study, the authors noted that the total amount of VOC’s measurable in the area was the equivalency of what would be emitted by 100,000,000 automobiles, or about one third of all the vehicles in America — all in a small, rural, and sparsely populated area.
Now, the list of the EPA’s volatile organic compounds contains some really nasty, cancerous, and birth defect causing stuff like benzene, toluene, xylene and many more, but it’s the exorbitantly high amount of VOCs present in the Uintah Basin that makes midwife Donna Young’s discovery of a potential cluster of stillborn babies that much more alarming.
To top it all off, the third thing that happened recently shone even more light on the baffling Uintah Basin air crisis, when data was released in the movie-star-packed Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously”, that once again displayed how the people of this region are swimming in dangerous and downright deadly airborne pollutants.
The celebrity-stuffed series effectively demonstrates that methane leakage from oil wells is far beyond what has ever been acknowledged by the industry, or the EPA for that matter, and according to the show’s research, the Uintah Basin came in as the second leakiest oilfield in America with an overall methane escape of 11%, second only to areas not far from here in the Los Angeles Basin that came in at 17%.
In an effort to curb the potentially catastrophic effects of global warming, President Barrack Obama has touted natural gas as a method to lower the carbon-loaded emissions from coal-fired power plants by transitioning to what he claims is a cleaner form of energy in natural gas. A notion that is made questionable by the exposed facts about methane leaks in the Showtime series.
One final piece of this unique and escalating air pollution puzzle to examine is a set of studies and articles that have been released over the past few years. These publications demonstrate that in addition to the aforementioned air pollution issues, the Uintah Basin is also experiencing the highest ozone levels in the United States, namely during the winter months.
The fact that the basin is experiencing these dangerous and even deadly levels of toxic ground-level ozone pollution during the winter, instead of the during summer months when ozone levels typically spike, creates yet another unique pollution mystery in the area.
Enter EnviroNews and our very own national Editor-in-Chief Emerson Urry in an exclusive report that might just answer some of the hows and whys in this ongoing and escalating rural Utah air pollution and human health conundrum.
Urry flew into the Uintah Basin with a familiar face (or should we say a familiar ski mask) on the EnviroNews network, in an effort to shine some light in these dark, eerie, and at times poisonous places.
After viewing a brief interview, we’re going to watch what happened when an anonymous North American oil and gas CEO of over 20 years took EnviroNews USA for a walk on a typical antiquated Uintah Basin oil well with an air monitoring device. What we discovered there is a bit disturbing. Take a listen:
Emerson Urry: We’re here on EnviroNews USA this evening. We’ve flown in with our anonymous North American oil and gas CEO to the magnificent and pristine Uintah Basin over on the Utah/Colorado border. We’ve done this in response to the Showtime documentary (Years of) Living Dangerously, with a report that showcased an 11% methane leakage coming from this area. So we’re here today with our anonymous North American oil and gas CEO transported into the Uintah Basin to talk about this issue. Hello today sir.
Oil CEO: Good evening. I’m here to talk about the situation with every well in the Uintah Basin being an emitter of some type of gas and/or other issues. These wells in the cumulative total of nearly 10,000 wells or more — gas or oil — are all emitting something, and that is the cumulative total that they speak of in the Showtime series. Also, recently there was a situation in the local papers about stillborn babies in Vernal, Utah which is on the eastern flank, the northeastern flank of the field. And, basically the whole air of this basin is clearly affected. You get this number of wells with lacks of supervision by the oil companies…
In the early 80s the EPA had vapor recovery units planned for every well. During the Reagan Administration those things just basically never happened, and they haven’t happened yet. So, consequently, here we are today, with every well an emitter adding to a situation which increases the air pollution and creates multiple situations ranging potentially from the stillborn babies in Vernal to situations that could include cancer or multiple types of things.
Urry: And so what we’ve got going today is we’ve come out here and you’ve brought a piece of equipment right? What can you tell us about that, and how are you going to utilize that to demonstrate how each and every well is indeed an emitter?
CEO: In a few minutes we’re gonna’ take the RAE (R-A-E) monitoring, what we call a “gas sniffer” is the proper terminology for oilfield people, and simply go to an average well and sniff a few areas on the site and prove to you that every well’s an emitter.
Urry: Alright, well let’s go ahead and step on out to the well site and take a look at what this piece of equipment can tell us.
CEO: Looking forward. Thank you.
The unit the man was using is made to detect five different things. Oxygen levels (which typically remain constant), Co2, methane, volatile organic compounds or VOC’s, and LELs or the levels of combustable materials present.
Urry: Ok, where are (we) at? What’s going on here “gas sniffer”?
CEO: We’re in a typical “gas shack” that separates the gas, sometimes adds methanol in the winter. What I have in my hand is the RAE gas sniffer. It tests for various gasses, volatile organic compounds, CO2.
Urry: Is there anything coming out of this gas house here?
CEO: It sure smells like it. The minute we opened the door it was… it smelled awful. Kind of a sickening egg smell.
Urry: It looks like the volatile compounds are elevating.
Urry: Ok, so looks like VOC’s coming off the gas house?
Urry: Ok. What more can you tell us?
CEO: I just feel like this is typical of any well really in America, but certainly in the Uintah Basin, because it has one of the higher emissions of gas and/or other compounds.
“Oilman X” as we’ve labeled him, continued to take us on a grand tour of the site, and at each and every place leaks were detected.
CEO: (Can you) smell that gas?
Urry: Whew! Ok, what can you tell us about where we are now?
CEO: Where we are here, we’re on top of the production tanks — water at tank one… gas can escape from these valves that are on top. Gas can escape from these hatches. You can see the mess of oil when they’re opened. During the 80s, the EPA required that they have vapor recovery units on every well to recover vapors that were escaping into the atmosphere. And, with the advent of the Ronal Reagan era, those controls were thrown by the wayside after the Carter Presidency. And basically, here we are today with bad air in the Uintah Basin, and the potential exists, for everyone of these things (to be) an emitter situation. These things fail. These things leak. And each area, if it’s just putting off a few MCF a day of gas, and other volatile compounds… that’s why we’re here today. It’s that simple.
Urry: And so what you’re saying is back in the 80s even, there was a system in place to capture all of the emissions off of these tank storage systems, and it’s not happening?
CEO: That is correct. It wouldn’t have been perfect, because there’s still escapes, but they’ve thrown away here in Utah, the Republican dominated legislature, and basically the Governor, and governors, have basically not enforced regulations or joined with the EPA to have operators take care of these issues. Operators say, “oh well, we’ll loose jobs.” How about loosing babies lives like up in Vernal, and the other scenarios that are happening throughout the basin, and the health of the people?
As it is too dangerous to climb out on the storage tanks, the oil executive popped the hatch on the oil production tank and measured the emissions in order to demonstrate what actually is coming out of the valves. The valve is the open pipe that you see in the middle of the tank.
It should be noted, that not all operators in the basin take the quickest, cheapest, and most haphazard road to profit circumventing vapor recovery units and other safety and environmental upgrades. For example, Bill Barrett Corporation has done a lot of drilling in the area and is using vapor recovery units on many of their sites. However, in our observations, most of the operators in the field are not.
Urry: Ok. Rollin’ tape again. Here we’re goin’ back down from the tank storage battery.
Urry: Rollin’ tape. Where are we now?
CEO: We’re in a separator house. It separates gas off the top, oil here, water, and it goes to the gas house that we were just at — and water down below.
Urry: So that’s some VOC’s coming out of the gas separator.
CEO: Ok. Each time that the dump dumps to the tank, or to the water tank… Just watch this, we’re going to touch the dump here. Are you ready?
Urry: Should we go over on the water tank?
CEO: Yeah. The point I was trying to make is do you hear that when it dumps?
Urry: Mmm hmm.
CEO: Each time it dumps, the antiquated equipment vents some gas, and it’s venting all day long.
Urry: (Did) you say “it’s venting all day long?”
CEO: Like that, off and on, every time it dumps water to the tank or…
Urry: So now we’re going up on top of the water tank correct?
CEO: Yeah. It’s known as the water… the water tank is…
Urry: Ok so where are we now?
CEO: Inside the water tank that goes into an underground water disposal system. It’s showing a four.
CEO: Yes. And that’s appearing to be a fairly constant number just escaping from somewhere inside this tank house. Ok, we’ll move to the top of the tank.
Urry: So, here we are on top of the water tank. That wasn’t even covered right?
CEO: The lid is missing from the tank. So, you have constant emissions. No vapor recovery unit to recover these vapors. Pan to the top of that…
Urry: I’ve got it.
CEO: The vapor recovery unit would be tied to the top of that. It appears to be wide open. Notice that as I took the probe out, it’s dropping down, but we are on a windy day.
Urry: Quite windy actually.
CEO: Probably a 10 mph breeze. So I’m going to go back inside the open tank.
Urry: And this was just like this. We just discovered it.
CEO: This tank leads to a buried underground water disposal system it appears, and…
Urry: We’re getting gassed up here.
CEO: Yeah. I think we need to move off. That breeze helped a little.
Urry: Shall we?
CEO: Alright, we’re going down. We’re just standing out in the air here…
Urry: On a breezy day.
CEO: On a breezy day — 10 mph wind I would guess. I find this just reprehensible that the air… One well times 10,000. That’s all you gotta know. This is unbelievable. Thank you.
In the days we were shooting this episode in the beautiful and once pristine area, we noticed that many older tank units on well sites were indeed missing lids. Sitting there open and exposed, these antiquated units off-gas toxins into the open air and environment on a continual basis.
If there is one thing that is clear it is that the Uintah Basin is reeling from a unique and hampering air pollution crisis. Are elevated levels of volatile organic compounds in Utah’s most productive oil patch to blame for the cluster of stillborns uncovered by midwife Donna Young? Hopefully, more research will soon give us the answer to that question.
For EnviroNews USA, Heather Murdock, Los Angeles.
FILM AND ARTICLE CREDITS
- Emerson Urry - Videojournalist, Research Journalist, Author, Editor, Interviewer, Sound Editor, 3D Animation, Transcript, Onscreen Captions
- Heather Murdock - Anchor, Narrator
- Ian Burbage - Assistant Producer, Lighting
- Mike Quenneville - Assistant Editor
- Ken Kruckenberg - Sound Mastering, Audio Effects