The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is calling on Congress to strike out the loopholes in federal air, water and waste laws that allow oil and natural gas producers operating in the Rocky Mountains to legally emit pollutants and toxic materials into the environment.

According to a 48-page report issued last week by the NRDC, pollutants and toxic materials emitted by oil and gas operations are affecting not only the environment but also families that live or have lived near facilities in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming -- where the industry is growing rapidly. Between 1995 and 2005, the report noted that more than 60,000 new wells came into production in those states; nationally, the number of producing gas wells increased from 270,000 to 425,000. The NRDC stated that more than 15,000 new oil wells were completed in 2006 alone, more than in any year since the 1980s.

"The pollution associated with oil and gas exploration and production include long-established carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, and other toxic chemicals like arsenic, hydrogen sulfide, mercury and volatile organic compounds including benzene and xylene," said principal author Amy Mall, an NRDC senior policy analyst.

Mall testified last week before House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the health and environmental effects associated with energy exploration and production, and loopholes that the NRDC said allow the industry to legally pollute. Mall also told Congress about technologies now available to control pollution and minimize toxic waste (see related story).

"Despite the close proximity of these operations to homes, schools, and other community resources, the oil and gas industry enjoys numerous exemptions from provisions of federal laws intended to protect human health and the environment," she said. The laws that the NRDC said offer exemptions for industry include the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (also known as the Superfund law), waste management laws under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and public right-to-know provisions of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

"Many people who live near oil and gas operations experience the kinds of symptoms known to be linked to the toxic substances found in oil and gas or the chemical additives used to produce them," Mall said. "Affordable pollution solutions are already available. It's past time for Congress to close the loopholes and eliminate the privilege to pollute."

The report noted that oil and gas producers may claim there is a lack of data proving that industry pollution is a cause of illness. However, "while more research needs to be conducted, important information is available...Given the difficulty of properly diagnosing chemical poisoning, physicians may not recognize a connection between illness and the oil and gas operations. In addition, some individuals choose not to share their stories, especially in communities with local economies dependent on the oil and gas industry."

According to the report, some illnesses are not reported because people move, "sometimes with their homes purchased by energy companies and with signed agreements that prohibit them from telling their stories. And still others have given up trying to call attention to this matter."

The NRDC recommended that the federal government, in coordination with state and local governments:

In addition to the NRDC, the Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action nonprofit also contributed to the report, "Drilling Down: Protecting Western Communities from the Health and Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Production." The report is available at www.nrdc.org.

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