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Doctors: More Oil Development in Uintah Basin Will Threaten Health

The University of Colorado found the Uintah Basin's bowl shape and snowy conditions trap emissions of methane and other gases from nearby oil wells, causing high ozone pollution. (Covee/Flickr)
The University of Colorado found the Uintah Basin's bowl shape and snowy conditions trap emissions of methane and other gases from nearby oil wells, causing high ozone pollution. (Covee/Flickr)
July 16, 2018

VERNAL, Utah — Estonian company Enefit American Oil for years has been eyeing northeastern Utah for what would be the largest oil shale operation in the country. Among those opposed to the prospect are doctors, who say the project poses major public health threats.

The project is planned for 30,000 acres of land in Uintah County. The land is privately owned, but the project requires Bureau of Land Management approval for a utility corridor to connect the site with water and electricity, which the BLM is on track to grant.

Several groups are speaking out, saying the BLM has failed to fully consider the impacts of oil operations. Dr. Brian Moench, board president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said emissions from oil development are disastrous for health.

"Hundreds of studies have documented the toxicity of those kinds of chemicals,” Moench said. “And the toxicity ranges from birth defects to cancer to chronic adult diseases, autoimmune disorders and things like that."

Enefit American Oil says its project will be safe, environmentally sound, and will create jobs. Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, along with other groups, sent a 44-page letter to the BLM last week citing numerous studies to counter the oil company's environmental and health claims.

The Uintah Basin already has a lot of oil and gas production, and a 2013 study from the University of Colorado documented huge spikes in air pollution in the region. Researchers noted that at certain times, the rural area saw ozone pollution as much as three-times higher than what might be seen in Manhattan.

Moench said that should be a red flag.

"We have absolute proof that, in fact, there is a pollution nightmare already in the area. We have proof that it's caused by the oil and gas industry,” he said. “Any sort of new arm of the oil and gas industry is likely to make that even worse."

Moench said his organization became concerned about the Uintah Basin after several stillbirths and infant deaths there in 2012 and 2013. A 2015 Utah Department of Health study of Adverse Birth Outcomes in the area placed more emphasis on maternal behavior than environmental factors, but noted the findings were based on a small statistical sample.

Katherine Davis-Young, Public News Service - UT