Fracking returns to the Pratt and Waste Connections locations

It has been just over 2 years since Encana ceased operations at the Pratt site in Erie due to unresolved noise violations.  Now Crestone Peak Resources believes it can resume drilling at the site without encountering the same problems.

Let’s revisit recent history:  In December 2014 drilling at the Pratt site consistently exceeded 65 decibels of C-level noise.  Despite multiple attempts at mitigation, Encana could not reduce the noise to acceptable levels.  Furthermore, while it normally only takes  10 to 14 days to complete the drilling process for one well, it took operators at the Pratt site nearly 30 days to finish one well.   During a town hall meeting in 2015, representatives from Encana explained that an “anomaly” at the site made drilling more difficult, which is why it took longer than usual to complete the drilling process.

According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commision (COGCC) database there were 40 complaints from residents near the Pratt location between 12/1/14 and 12/29/14. Here is the response from Matt Lepore (Director of the COGCC) to all residents who filed noise complaints: COGCC letter to residents.   Mr. Lepore also addressed Mayor Harris, the Board of Trustees, and the general public during a town hall meeting in January 2015 which can be viewed here: Matt Lepore addresses Erie Town Hall.  Both in his letter to residents as well as his public address, Mr. Lepore told Erie homeowners that if Encana decided to return to the Pratt location, the COGCC would establish “around the clock noise monitoring during drilling operations” and Encana would need to drill in stages, successfully drilling the surface casing without exceeding noise limits prior to drilling deeper.

Fast forward to 2016: In July Encana sold its Denver Julesburg Basin assets in Colorado to Crestone.  On Friday January 27,  2017 the Town of Erie notified residents via email that Crestone plans to resume drilling operations at the Pratt and Waste Connections sites in March.  By Thursday February 2 residents were already experiencing increased truck traffic and noise from site preparations.

After receiving the email notification I decided to stop by the Crestone office in downtown Erie.  I hoped to talk with someone from Crestone in-person, as I wanted to know if they had any idea of the quagmire they would be walking into by resuming drilling  at the Pratt location.  I carried with me a copy of a Denver Post article from 2015 that details the messy history of the noise violations at the Pratt site.  I wanted to know if Encana had been forthcoming with Crestone about the fact that they had spent $250,000 on attempting to mitigate the noise, yet in the end cut their losses and pulled out.   But I couldn’t find Crestone’s office.  The building has a large sign in the front yard that says Crestone on it, but all of the doors to the building have signs for different law firms.  I later learned that the Crestone office is on the second floor and you have to enter through one of the law firm doors.  It wouldn’t have made a difference though.  It turns out that Crestone’s office is only available to the public by appointment.

I also called Crestone three times beginning that same day.  Twice I left friendly voicemail messages requesting that someone call me back since I am a resident of Erie who lives near one of the sites they will soon be drilling and I have a few questions.  On Friday Feb 3 I actually reached someone.  However he told me that the office was closed, as it always is on the 1st and 3rd Fridays of the month.  He took my name and phone number and assured me that someone would call me back on Monday.  That call never came.  I have also emailed Crestone twice – and no one has responded other than to give me the link to the telephone town hall meeting.

In the meantime, I emailed our Mayor and Board of Trustees (BOT) several times about my concerns.  Mayor Harris eventually responded, apologized for the delay, and let me know that she and the BOT were concerned too.  She informed me that the BOT had an executive meeting scheduled with their Oil and Gas Special Counsel set for Tuesday February 14.

I also reached out to Matt Lepore (Director of the COGCC) and was surprised to receive a quick response.  However his explanations fall short of his previous promises.   The entire email exchange follows (although I removed my name and address for privacy):

Friday February 10, 2017

Dear Matt Lepore,

In 2014, Encana commenced drilling at the Pratt site in Erie and ran into “unprecedented” noise issues that could not be resolved.  At a town hall meeting, you apologized for the COGCC’s slow response, and said that in order for Encana to return to the Pratt site, they would first have to demonstrate that the noise problems had been solved.  Furthermore, you stipulated that they would have to drill several test wells before drilling deeper.

In the interim, Crestone bought Encana.  Crestone has given Erie residents notice that they will resume drilling at the Pratt and Waste Connections sites in March 2017.  Yet we have been given no assurances that the noise issues have been resolved.  My question for you, is will you uphold your commitment to Erie residents and require that Crestone prove that they will not create the same debacle at the Pratt site we endured before?

Thank you for your prompt attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,

(My full name and address)

Friday February 10, 2017

Mr. (my last name):

Thank you for your email.

Crestone Peak has taken a number of steps to ensure their operations will
be quieter than Encana’s were in late 2014.  Crestone will be using
electric power for the drilling rig at the Pratt location.  In addition,
they have studied other sources of noise associated with their drilling
rigs and have taken measures to dampen those sources.  The rig that will
be used to drill the Pratt location wells is currently being used nearby
and Crestone is monitoring the rig’s performance so it can make
modifications if necessary.

Crestone is addressing the “test well” issue by using the same rig that
will be used for Pratt at another location to gauge its performance.  In
addition, Crestone Peak will be taking “core” samples prior to drilling to
ascertain whether there are abandoned coal mine shafts in the area they
are drilling, which contributed to the complications they encountered in
2014.

Sincerely,

____________________
Matthew J. Lepore
Director

Saturday February 11, 2017

Dear Matt Lepore,

I really appreciate your prompt and thorough response.  I do however have a couple of additional concerns.

Encana and the COGCC initially explained to Erie residents that the problems encountered at the Pratt site were an “anomaly” with no easily identifiable cause.  So when you say that Crestone is testing their electric rig at another location and that is therefore a reasonable predictor of how the rig will perform at the Pratt location, I am more than a bit skeptical. Since the problems at the Pratt site were believed to be site-specific, results from “test” drilling at another site nearby do not translate.

At the very least, I implore the COGCC to set up noise monitors in nearby homeowners’ yards prior to the start of any drilling so that problems can be identified immediately.  The  COGCC’s delay in 2014 caused undue suffering to Erie residents and should not be repeated.

Furthermore, I request that air quality monitoring be set up at the Pratt and Waste Connections sites at the time drilling commences.  The complaint that I personally filed in 2014 was due to chemical odors (and my experience of light-headedness as a result) that occurred during flaring at the Pratt site.  Forty eight hours later the COGCC investigated; of course by then, flaring was no longer taking place and air quality had improved to a level where no violation was identified.  This is a completely ineffective way to protect the health and safety of residents who live in proximity to oil and gas operations.  Proactive air quality monitoring would go a long way in re-establishing some public trust in the COGCC.

Thank you again for your time and attention.

Sincerely,

(my full name)

Sunday February 12, 2017

Ms. (my last name):

 The referenced anomaly were subsurface coal mine shafts from days of yore.  Crestone Peak will be drilling “core” samples prior to drilling their wellbores in an effort to identify and avoid any such shafts this time around.  The electric motors and other noise mitigation measures they have taken should translate from one location to the next, although other variables, including topography and wind speed and direction, can effect sound significantly.

I will confirm this, but I am almost sure Crestone Peak will be monitoring sound levels continuously during drilling.

Although COGCC does have jurisdiction over odors from oil and gas operations, air quality monitoring detects specific constituents in the atmosphere; there are not “odor monitors” to the best of my knowledge.  Monitoring for air pollutants falls under the jurisdiction of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Air Pollution Control Division.

Sincerely,

____________________

Matthew J. Lepore

Director

 

I forwarded my email exchange to Mayor  Harris and the BOT.  It is frustrating that while no one ever verified that the rig itself was the source of the excessive noise at the Pratt site (as there was never a public report or press release revealing that the COGCC or Encana had determined a cause) we are now supposed to accept Mr. Lepore’s conclusion that use of an electric rig will solve the noise issue.  Plus, if Crestone is doing their own noise monitoring which Mr. Lepore is “almost sure of”, we are supposed to believe that they will report themselves and cease operations if they are exceeding the limits?

I have to applaud Mr. Lepore’s use of the phrase “days of yore” as it is difficult to work that expression into modern day communication and it lends a patronizing tone to his comments.  Let’s consider for a moment the likelihood that hidden mine shafts would make drilling more difficult.  Erie is an old coal mining town and is littered with subsurface mines.  In fact, land subsidence is a known entity here that results from collapse of underground mine shafts.  So is it really plausible that subsurface mine shafts would allow the ground to support the weight of a large, heavy drilling rig and yet make it incredibly difficult to drill through without collapse and subsidence?  Maybe the coal mine shafts from bygone days are filled with concrete – or made out of diamonds.

There is a lot more information to dissect here – like the fact that the COGCC will investigate “odors” but has no jurisdiction over quantifiable, objective measures of air quality.  There is also this past week’s disastrous “Telephone Town Hall Meeting” with Crestone representatives to address.  But that discussion will require its own separate blog post.

For now, I would like to leave you with the most interesting result of my review of Mr. Lepore’s communications.  Back in early 2015, he mentioned that the COGCC was collaborating with researchers at Colorado State University to evaluate noise produced by drilling and fracking operations.  The study that he refers to has since been made public, and their findings are quite damning for the industry in terms of placing oil and gas activities near residential areas.   You can read the entire study here: CSU Noise Characterization of Oil and Gas Operations 2016.

The abstract concludes with the following statements:

“At 117 yards from the noise source, all drilling, hydraulic fracturing and completion sites exceeded 65 dBC.

Current sound wall mitigation strategies reduced sound levels in both the A- and C weighted scales. However, this reduction in noise was not sufficient enough to categorize drilling and hydraulic fracturing sites as compliant with the current COGCC noise regulations.”

Essentially, at ~350 feet (117 yards) from the operation (the point as which the COGCC is supposed to measure sound levels), drilling, fracking and completion activities typically exceed the noise limits allowed by the COGCC.  Yet it is okay for these operations to be so close to our homes?  I think this study provides even more fuel for a citizen driven lawsuit against the State of Colorado, for knowingly jeopardizing the health and safety of its citizens through inadequate regulation of the oil and gas industry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sorting Fact from Fiction: a look at oil and gas industry commercials

Last week brought disappointment to those of us who wanted the opportunity to vote on increased local control of oil and gas operations within our neighborhoods.  The Colorado Secretary of State disclosed his decision that there were not enough legitimate signatures on the petitions to get initiatives 75 and 78 on the ballot this November.  Then as if to add insult to injury, a new commercial started airing thanking Colorado citizens for taking a “balanced” approach to energy development by not signing these petitions.

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The commercial features Gale Norton, who tells us that as our former State Attorney General it was her responsibility to “keep a watchful eye on ballot measures.” As she speaks,  images of drilling rigs surrounded by open fields flash across the background.  She references her prior political office, seeking to portray herself as an impartial observer rather than someone with an agenda.  It is a clear effort to make us believe that she knows what is best for us, like a parent exerting authority for our own good. Never mind the fact that Gale Norton has long-standing ties to the oil and gas industry, having worked for Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company before starting her own consulting firm.  Furthermore, in her work as the U. S. Secretary of the Interior under President George Bush, she promoted the expansion of oil and gas operations in the West and resigned amid an ethics investigation involving convicted felon Jack Abramoff and her department .  All in all, given her allegiance to the oil and gas industry as well as questionable ethics, she seems like the perfect person to front this advertisement and paint a distorted view of reality.

I think a more authentic version of the commercial should have Norton say the following: “It should not surprise you that like many past and present politicians,  I am an advocate for the oil and gas industry.  In fact, I feel it is my duty to place the financial interests of the industry ahead of measures that may improve the health and welfare of the general public.  After all, money is good for Colorado, and it’s good for me too.  Look at these images of oil and gas drilling rigs surrounded by open space while I talk about how the recently defeated ballot initiatives would have ‘gutted’ the oil and gas industry and destroyed our economy.   We don’t want you to think about having these same operations right next to your homes and schools — so we will flood your TV screen with images that perpetuate the misconception that oil and gas operations are primarily taking place far away from anything that could possibly impact you directly.  So thank you Colorado, for listening to our campaign to frighten you from signing any petitions.  We’re glad our strategy worked, and we thank you for helping line the pockets of oil and gas companies without questioning whether any of us have a conflict of interest.”

(Side Note: Speaking of conflicts of interest, our current Colorado Secretary of State and Attorney General both have ties to the oil and gas industry, as described in this well written Boulder Weekly article from last week.)

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Another disingenuous commercial frequenting the airwaves right now features Marc the farmer.  He tells us that he has lived and worked on his family’s farm for many years and that Noble Energy is a fantastic company.  He claims, “most of our production takes place in rural areas and so does theirs.”  He also goes on to tell us that 2500 ft setbacks of oil and gas drilling rigs from schools and other occupied buildings is ridiculous and would “cripple” the oil and gas industry.  But let’s take a closer look at those statements.  If most oil and gas production takes place in rural areas then how would 2500 ft setbacks from occupied buildings halt energy operations?  Honestly, if most drilling and fracking were taking place out of sight instead of within our communities, this wouldn’t even be an issue for most people.  But the problem is, for those of us who are unfortunate enough to live where oil and gas companies want to drill, the idea that drilling/fracking mainly takes place in rural areas is laughable.  Why on earth would oil and gas companies be spending millions of dollars on an ad campaign to tell us that they are wonderful if there was not an overabundance of evidence to the contrary?  I especially love when Marc says that Noble Energy is a great company to work with “from a land owner’s perspective.” One of the injustices of real estate is that you can buy a home without a reasonable option to purchase the mineral rights to the land beneath your home.  It must be nice for you, Marc, to own your land and be able to work with Noble Energy to make sure they do not set up that drill rig right next to your house.  That is not an option for those of us who don’t have the money to buy acreage, but instead live within suburban developments without any mineral rights.

We are inundated with additional radio and television commercials that tell us that oil and gas development is vital to our economy, and fracking is safe.    I particularly cringe at the one with the woman walking through the woods, declaring “I have always been interested in protecting the earth” as she goes on to explain that she’s protecting the environment from the inside by working for an oil and gas company.  There is a very  Stepford Wives quality to the blank look on her face as well as the stilted monotone character of her voice.  I think the message is supposed to be calming:  Trust us.  Look, we even have an “environmentalist” who works for us.  We’ll make sure everything is okay.  Go worry about something besides fracking.  Notice that she is not walking in an open field, next to multiple natural gas storage tanks, like the ones we have in our neighborhoods.  She is walking among the trees in an area that has no obvious sign of oil and gas activity.  It is as if the commercial is trying to say, “See, we don’t drill everywhere!  We’ve left a few places intact and unspoiled.  You should thank us for leaving you a nice place to hike.” This propaganda seeks to brainwash us to associate pristine images of nature with oil and gas companies.  Other commercials use this tactic as well.  Consider the Noble Energy TV commercial with the woman in the red shirt running on a path.  Have you noticed all of the clean creeks and waterfalls you see in that commercial?  We are supposed to assume that clean, healthy watersheds go hand in hand with oil and gas companies.

The reality is that there is mounting evidence that fracking waste along with chronic exposure to the hydrocarbons released from oil and gas operations are bad for our health (see peer reviewed scientific articles here).  And mainstream media fails to talk about the smaller spills that happen frequently.  Here’s a report on just one that happened recently in Erie: Spill Release Report to COGCC

The oil and gas industry is counting on us to be gullible.  They assume that the general public will believe the commercials we see on TV, hear on the radio, and find littering our mailboxes.  They are counting on the overwhelming repetition of their message to overshadow the murky truth of the hazards (such as methane leaks described here) for those of us living alongside oil and gas activities.

My message to you is to be vigilant and skeptical:  Ask yourself, if fracking is truly safe and there are no risks to my health from living next to drilling and fracking operations, then why is the oil and gas industry spending millions of dollars on an ad campaign to convince me that I should have no concerns?

Let’s face it.  The pro oil and gas organizations within our state continue to run a very aggressive and effective advertising campaign; since they have millions of dollars to spend on marketing, it is easy for them to defeat the underdog opponent.  One of the more effective schemes was to paint our grassroots local oil and gas control movement as an “out of state special interest.”  They maligned the opposition as the very outsider big money entity that more accurately describes themselves.   Note too the language they choose in naming pro oil and gas organizations: “protect Colorado” and “Coloradoans for responsible Energy Development.”  While misleading and devious, it is a rather ingenious ploy.  We can learn something about how to use vocabulary to our advantage as we formulate our counter arguments.

So how do we fight this onslaught of advertisements when we lack the money and political power that backs the oil and gas industry?  I certainly don’t have all of the answers.  But I do have some ideas:

  • Use social media as much as possible to spread the word.  Experience something in your neighborhood related to oil and gas?  Take a picture and share it on Facebook. Better yet, when drilling rigs are operating near you, get some video and post it to YouTube and Facebook.
  • Support the Sierra Club and other non-profit organizations working on our behalf to fight unchecked development of oil and gas within our state and beyond.
  • Talk to neighbors and friends — be a grassroots advocate.
  • Read as much as you can.  A good starting point is this site which gives a nice synopsis of fracking-related issues.
  • Share this blog and read others such as this one

Yet, the single most important thing you can do for Colorado this year is to vote NO on ballot initiative 71, the so-called “Raise the Bar Initiative.”  This initiative, if passed, would make it more difficult to bring forth future citizen-driven amendment petitions. No matter where you stand on the fracking debate in Colorado, you should be alarmed at the level of influence that industries and special interests have on our politicians.  Maybe the hot button issue right now is fracking, and so you are willing to give up your ability to mount future amendments because you are not too concerned about oil and gas development in your daily life.  But that approach is very short sighted.  You would leave yourself with no future recourse when the political climate changes and a new set of special interest groups are buying our politicians’ votes.  “Raise the Bar” increases the power of politicians and takes it away from the people.  It feeds government corruption.  Take a stand and vote NO.

Reality Check: oil, gas, and taxes

Homes in Vista Ridge, with Longs Peak in the background.

Homes in Vista Ridge, with Longs Peak in the background.

There was a lot of media flurry surrounding the Colorado Supreme Court decision to overturn the Longmont and Fort Collins fracking bans.  Still another Supreme Court decision in April 2016 flew largely under the radar — even for our state legislators.

In early May, state lawmakers were surprised that they needed to address a budget crisis after a Colorado Supreme Court decision determined that the State of Colorado owes upwards of $100 million in tax refunds to oil and gas companies. At issue is a deduction from the severance tax that oil and gas companies pay when they extract non-renewable natural resources from the ground. Severance taxes that the state collects are divided 50:50 between the Department of Natural Resources and the counties that are impacted by oil and gas development.

Yet here is the disturbing reality of oil and gas taxes in Colorado as reported in the Denver Post:

  • Colorado has one of the lowest tax rates of the western states
  • Companies can already deduct property taxes from their calculated severance tax. So what starts out as a 3-5% tax (depending upon the value of oil and gas at the time) is reduced to approximately a 1.3% tax. And now, they are allowed yet another deduction because of the way the law was written and subsequently interpreted by the state Supreme Court.

So you may be thinking, “if state lawmakers were unaware that oil and gas companies could take an additional deduction against the severance tax, why don’t they just re-write the law?” And yes, that would be a logical way to clean up the budget mess for next year. However, a bill that would have taken away the severance tax deduction from this point forward died in the House of Representatives due to lack of support.

Let me be very clear: the oil and gas severance tax is supposed to be a means for communities impacted by oil and gas activity to receive additional financial benefit beyond collection of property taxes. We just learned that oil and gas companies will now be paying even less severance tax to the state, meaning that our towns and cities will receive less money. And rather than address this legal loophole, our state legislators chose to do nothing, and ultimately we the taxpayers will suffer the consequences.

So I ask you, do our state lawmakers appear to be serving the citizens of Colorado, or are they serving the oil and gas industry?

The influence of special interests on our lawmakers at all levels of government has become a bit of a catch phrase because it is so pervasive.  It warps our democracy.  It is the very reason that our state constitution allows for citizens to make amendments through ballot initiatives like the Colorado Community Rights Amendment.  Government corruption and  special interest influence is nothing new.  Our predecessors had the foresight to preserve the rights of individual citizens to bypass our state lawmakers in order to put decision-making back into the hands of the people.  Don’t be fooled by the pro-industry push to “protect the integrity of the constitution” and make it more difficult to amend.  This so-called “Raise the Bar” ballot initiative weakens our individual rights and makes us more dependent upon state lawmakers.  Good for them — bad for you and me.

Both our state government and the oil and gas industry would have us believe that oil and gas development is so vital to Colorado’s economic well-being, that we should bend over backwards to accommodate its needs.  Allowing drilling activities within our towns (near our homes and schools) benefits oil and gas companies because we already have the roads and infrastructure in place to support the transport of the materials they extract.  But if you think this activity doesn’t have the potential to negatively impact your property values — think again.  I have received several inquiries through this blog site from people who wonder whether or not they should buy a home in Erie since they’ve heard about our issues with fracking.  Honestly, I’m not sure what to tell them.   Furthermore,  being so beholden to a single source of jobs and income puts our economic well-being at tremendous risk when there are massive market swings in the value of oil and gas.   Check out the projection of job losses for Weld County this year: Denver Post: “Northern colorado job rift opens with weld bleeding badly.  And if you want to see a real-life “worst case scenario”, just look at Venezuela.  Venezuela’s critical error was in failing to diversify it’s sources of income, relying instead almost entirely on oil production.  Now the country faces devastating economic collapse because of the sustained fall in oil prices.  Meanwhile, the market for renewable energy sources is surging, and job prospects are following suit.  We have other industry options that will help keep Colorado a thriving and viable state; we just need to stay open to new possibilities and stop investing so heavily in oil and gas.

It’s not too late to sign the petition to get the Colorado Community Rights Amendment on the ballot in November.  Please get out there and make a difference.  Our future depends upon it.

 

 

 

Support the Colorado Community Rights Amendment

This post is the first in a three part series:  1.  Support the Colorado Community Rights Amendment  2.  Reality Check: oil, gas, and taxes  3.  Sorting Fact from Fiction: a look at oil and gas industry commercials

I have avoided writing — or even looking at my blog site for nearly 10 months.  The mud-slinging and mean-spirited discourse on the various Erie Facebook pages have left me wanting to abstain from any online discussion.  We need to remember to treat each other with kindness and compassion, no matter how viscerally we disagree.  We’re not going to change anyone’s mind by figuratively hitting him/her over the head.  It is much better to carry out conversations in person whenever possible; I guarantee the things people type on a keyboard in the heat of the moment are not things they would be willing to say to each other face to face.

So if you like my blog, great.  If not, please move on.  This is an animosity-free zone.



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The Colorado Community Rights Amendment urgently needs your support.  In order to be on the ballot this November, Coloradans for Community Rights (CCR) needs to gather 99,000 signatures by August.

The Colorado Community Rights Amendment in and of itself would not ban fracking — or any oil and gas activity for that matter.  It would simply give Colorado counties and municipalities the right to make their own rules to promote the safety and well-being of the people that reside within them.  For example, if a community wants to impose drilling setbacks of 2000 ft from homes and schools, this amendment would enable them to pass a law to establish that regulation.  Likewise, if a town decides to enact a law that would ban all fracking activity within its boundaries, this amendment would allow for that as well.

The Colorado Supreme Court’s recent ruling against the cities of Fort Collins and Longmont highlight why fighting for local control is so important.  Although the people of Longmont and Fort Collins had voted in a general election to implement a ban against fracking and fracking waste disposal within city limits, the Court ruled these bans to be “invalid and unenforceable”.   The Court determined that state law overrides the rights of its citizens to protect their own health and safety.

Yet, our predecessors made sure that our state constitution protects the sovereignty of the people.  Article V states, “the people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and amendments to the constitution and to enact or reject the same at the polls independent of the general assembly and also reserve power at their own option to approve or reject at the polls any act or item, section, or part of any act of the general assembly.”

You could even argue that fighting for our rights as citizens is our patriotic duty as Coloradans.

Now some of you may be thinking that local communities do not need the ability to pass laws to further regulate drilling and fracking activity because of the relative success Erie has had with entering into an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with oil and gas companies.  And certainly, I do not want to diminish the efforts that our Board of Trustees and Mayor have put forth to negotiate stronger regulations and setbacks with Encana.  However, our Trustees were frustrated to learn that the COGCC will not enforce 11 of 18 stipulations in Erie’s MOU, meaning that if Encana violates a part of the agreement that the COGCC does not enforce, Erie would be financially responsible for any costs associated with taking Encana to court.  As it is, Erie reportedly spent $100,000 in legal fees while negotiating the recent MOU.

From a pragmatic standpoint, spending $100,000 to get Encana to agree to 1000 ft setbacks (among other concessions) is not cost-effective, especially when there is another reasonable option.  If the Colorado Community Rights Amendment were to take effect, Erie could simply pass a local law requiring a 1000 ft drilling setback.  That is certainly a cheaper, more direct alternative.  And that should spur every Erie resident to jump at the chance to sign the petition to put the Colorado Community Rights Amendment on the ballot.

Wondering where and when you can sign the petition?  Check out the CCR website.  There are also a couple of upcoming events in Erie where there will be an opportunity to sign the petition:

  • Sunday June 5 from 1-3 pm at the Erie Community Library  
  • Saturday June 11 from 8am to 2pm at 635 Moffat Street in old town Erie (in conjunction with the community yard sale and Erie Brewfest).

Our state government has demonstrated that its actions do not reflect the will of the people.  Get out there and help yourselves and your community by signing the Colorado Community Rights Amendment petition.

When will we learn to value clean water the way we value oil and gas?

Erie has experienced a quiet summer without new drilling operations.  I have been living with the hope that because of the precipitous fall in oil and gas market values, that it will not be economically feasible for Encana to return to Erie in the near future.  Yet it seems our freedom from new drilling and fracking may be short-lived.  Encana recently re-submitted its application to drill at the Pratt site, and there is a meeting on Wednesday (tomorrow) about another proposed drilling site in Erie: Morgan Hill.

Once again I am on edge, wondering how another round of drilling/fracking operations will play out.

I also continue to be amazed at how we as a society fail to learn from our past.  Mining and drilling operations cause pollution.  Yet people argue over the extent of that pollution and the subsequent environmental impact.  Big spills make the headlines.  Small spills do not.   We ignore ongoing environmental contamination when the overwhelming perception is that the contamination is normal.

Take for instance the spill from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado that occurred a little over 2 weeks ago.  There are many mines in that region that are slowly leaching contaminants into the nearby groundwater.  (The Colorado Geological Survey reports that there are approximately 23,000 abandoned mines across our state).  The EPA has been working on clean-up projects, first targeting mines that are the biggest problems.  However, in the process of initiating the clean-up effort at Gold King, workers breached the soil dam that was holding back contaminated wastewater. Three million gallons of wastewater (containing lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other heavy metals) flowed into Cement Creek and on to the Animas River and beyond.  Many people expressed frustration with the EPA for allowing this to happen.  Yet I think we need to remember that the EPA did not create this mine; they were tasked with clean-up in the aftermath of mining operations.

To read more about why sub-surface mining results in water accumulation within active and abandoned mines, read about Acid Mine Drainage.

Until I did some research, I assumed that the Gold King Mine is an abandoned mine, i.e. without an owner.  But that assumption is wrong.  The owner of the Gold King Mine, Todd Hennis, blames another mining company, Kinross Gold of Canada, for the large volume of wastewater that has accumulated within the Gold King Mine.  His claim is that when Kinross Gold plugged a portion of one of its mines, that action pushed increased wastewater into other nearby mines including the Gold King Mine Todd Hennis, who assumed ownership of Gold King Mine via foreclosure when the original owners went bankrupt, believes that he bears no responsibility in the clean-up effort.  Furthermore, he blames another company for the high level of wastewater in his mine.  So in the end, despite the fact that there is a mine owner and potentially another company that should be contributing to the clean-up effort, there is simply a lot of passing of the buck.  As a result, we the American people are left with responsibility for clean-up years after the mine ceased operations.  We rely on the EPA to do this kind of work for us, and then we denounce the EPA when something goes terribly wrong with the clean-up effort.  Why do we not hold the mining companies accountable? The simple truth is that the people who should shoulder the majority of the blame in this environmental quagmire are no longer alive.

Well before the release of the wastewater that turned the Animas River into an opaque orange color, my husband and I made plans to hike in the Silverton/Ouray area the weekend of August 15.  Although our hiking did not take us near the Animas River or Cement Creek, we did spot a river that was orange.  While hiking up Bear Creek Trail (toward the abandoned Bear Creek Mine) just outside of Ouray, we identified orange water southwest of us.  At the same time, we passed an older gentlemen on the trail, and I asked him if that was Cement Creek.  He said, “No, that’s the Uncompahgre River.  It’s always that color.”  “Great,” I thought.  “That cannot be healthy.”  Later, while driving toward Silverton, we had better views of the Uncompahgre — and of the orange colored silt that coats the rocks along its shores.  Later I compared my photos to the ones I found when Google searching “acid mine drainage.”  The Uncompahgre River has the classic appearance of a river suffering from acid mine drainage.   This is “normal.”

View of the Uncompahgre River along the Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton, CO

View of the Uncompahgre River along the Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton, CO

The EPA estimates that the cost to clean up mines nationwide (excluding coal mines) ranges from $20 billion to $54 billion.  In hindsight, we should have had more regulations requiring mining companies to adhere to stringent clean-up practices when operations ended.  Yet at the time the mines were developed, mining was driving the economy and creating boom towns.  No one wanted to worry about the future — they were only concerned about economic success in the present.

This prioritization of short-term economic gain serves industry well.  And industry members (whether they are mining companies, oil/gas companies, etc.) are quick to point out that the public uses the metals and energy that they provide.  Yet I still find a price tag of $20 to $54 billion hard to swallow — especially considering the financial gain that the companies responsible for the contamination enjoyed.  Furthermore this price tag does not even take into account the cost of the health impacts that may stem from unrecognized contamination.

The Navajo people on a reservation in northeastern Arizona know all too well the health impacts of contamination.  For decades they have lived with uranium exposure and massive contamination from uranium mining.  For a quick summary of this horrifying story, check out this NPR piece: Yellow Gold: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed.  The estimated cost of the clean-up exceeds $130 million, which means that the process will be slow.  For more information, read Uranium Mine Clean Up on Navajo Reservation Could Take 100 Years.

Now that the Navajo people know not to drink (or use for any purpose) the well water on their land, clean and safe water is in short supply.   Approximately 40% of the people who live on the reservation do not have running water.  They have to make the water they store in barrels last a month or more.  Forced to become experts in water conservation, some are able to live off of 7 gallons of water per day (compared to the 100 gallons per day the average American uses).  The CBS Sunday Morning Show recently shared this story and profiled a Navajo woman named Darlene Arviso, dubbed “the water lady.”  Darlene uses a large truck to deliver water to people on the reservation, as many would otherwise have to drive 100 miles to access water on their own, and few have cars.   CBS’s crew showed the remarkable ways in which people on the reservation conserve water.  In one instance, they demonstrated how several people may share the same tub of water to take turns washing their hair.   

Water is life giving, and we literally cannot survive without it.  Yet despite the shortages we frequently face in the West, we fall short when it comes to treating clean water as a priority.  We recognize that once contaminated, water should be cleaned.  However we fail to recognize that it would be far more cost effective to prevent the contamination in the first place.

Residents who lived in Erie more than 30 years ago talk about how no one drank the well water because it was so contaminated.  Today, Erie does not have its own source of water.  Instead, Erie purchases water through the Colorado Big Thompson project, which is delivered to Carter Lake in Berthoud.  From there, it travels via pipeline directly to our water treatment facility or to our reservoirs for storage.  Apparently our water treatment facility does such a good job of removing contaminants and odd-tasting elements that we have “award winning” water: Erie’s drinking water drenched in a cascade of praise.  And while I am very happy that our water passes rigorous testing standards, I do not think this gives us license to say that the oil and gas drilling activities in Erie pose no risk to our groundwater.  For while Erie has widely publicized it’s recent citizen survey which found that 90% of citizens rate Erie as a good or excellent place to live, and Money magazine ranked Erie #13 of the 50 best small towns in America, a recent spill from one of Encana’s produced water tanks within the agricultural edge of Erie failed to receive any news coverage.  In fact, I learned of it on Facebook.

A COGCC document dated 7/2/2015 provides details of a spill from a “produced water tank” near Weld County Road 6 and I-25.  Tests of the groundwater near the site of the leak found benzene, toluene, and xylenes at levels that exceed regulatory limits.  Soil sample analysis was still pending at the time of the report.  Based upon the latitude and longitude in the report, I found an image of the area on Google Earth:

Site of produced water tank spill in Erie, CO, June 2015

Site of produced water tank spill in Erie, CO, June 2015

Note the proximity to Little Dry Creek, which flows into the South Platte River.  While I have no way of knowing whether any contamination reached the creek, this illustrates the point that water is vulnerable to contamination.

From the COGCC document, I cannot tell how frequently that produced water tank was being inspected prior to this incident.  How long had the tank been leaking when the spill was discovered?   Or did a spill occur as workers were doing something to it?  These are the types of questions I rely on reporters to ask.  But this incident flew below the radar and did not make the news.

Sure, maybe this is an isolated incident, and here I am harping on one “little” blunder by Encana.  Shame on me.  But I long for the day when we treat water as the precious commodity that it is  —  when we value it before we get to the point that it’s scarcity forces us to behave differently.  Unfortunately, we just don’t heed the warnings of our past mistakes.

 

 

We need more people to care….and speak out

Frustration has largely kept me from blogging in recent weeks.  My ongoing agitation stems from how our community is handling the issues surrounding fracking and the apparent apathy of so many of our neighbors.  It would certainly be much easier to live in blissful ignorance of oil/gas operations in Erie. And I wish I could rest easy with the knowledge that our town leadership will fight to protect the health, safety, and property values of Erie citizens. Yet thus far, I am underwhelmed with our Board of Trustees’ overall progress in MOU negotiations. I hope they ultimately prove me wrong.

This past week, I read an interesting op-ed article in the New York Times, questioning moral truths. NY Times Opinion article link  The author, Justin P. McBrayer of Durango, CO, discusses how the new “common core” educational system instructs students to define fact vs. opinion. He writes that by common core standards, a fact is something that can be proven.   He then goes on to argue that this is an oversimplification of the definition; after all something can be true, and therefore a fact, even if we cannot prove it yet.

That line of reasoning has had me thinking: how much “proof” will it take to the tip the scales and have a majority of people believe that oil/gas drilling and fracking poses significant health risks, especially when it is located so close to people’s homes? What will it take for there to be a shift from “opinion” to “fact”?

As I scan the Facebook posts from the skeptics who side with those who argue that there is no data linking fracking to ill health effects, I’ve been doing my own PubMed searches.  Specifically, I have been looking for published, peer-reviewed scientific articles related to fracking. And in my search, I found that there is already a beautifully organized list of articles on a website for the group TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange).  The group was founded by a PhD who specialized in the biology of hormone disruption secondary to chemical exposure.  Here’s a link to the fracking related articles: Peer Reviewed Articles Natural Gas Operations

One of the articles that caught my attention reports on an air-quality study performed right here in Erie, CO in 2013.  Link to Article on Oil and Gas Emissions in Northeastern Colorado.   This study (Thompson, CR 2014) was conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and involved air sample collection in East Erie (Weld County), West Erie (Boulder County) and Longmont from March-June 2013.  The aim of the study was to measure levels of non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs), which are known precursors to ozone.  There is substantial explanation within the article of the different kinds of NMHCs, and which are ones are primarily derived from oil and gas operations vs. vehicle exhaust, fires, etc. (If you want to sort through that, I suggest you read the article in full.)  The levels of NMHCs in the Erie/Longmont sampling were also compared to background levels (established in previous studies) in Denver and Platteville.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider what the above article found regarding benzene, a known carcinogen, linked to oil and gas operations:

“The mean value for benzene measured at residences in Erie/Longmont was 0.57 ppbv, which is equivalent to 2.0 µg/m3.”

Okay, so benzene levels near Erie/Longmont residences was 2.0ug/m3.  What does that mean, and why should we care?  Well, the authors go on to explain the following:

“As defined by the World Health Organization and the U.S. EPA, lifetime exposure to benzene of 1.7 µg/m3 increases one’s risk of cancer to 1 in 100,000 (EPA, 2013; WHO, 2010). Thus, the mean benzene levels in Platteville and Erie are above this threshold and therefore of a high enough concentration for the potential of detrimental health effects if chronic exposure at these levels should occur.”

Apparently if we choose to spend a lifetime in Erie, we may increase our risk of cancer substantially.  That’s a sobering thought.

Another salient point the article makes relates to Northern Colorado’s struggle to achieve better air quality.   Much of Northern Colorado has been in violation of the National Air Quality Standard and was subsequently listed as a Federal Non-attainment Area since 2007.  As a result, the Colorado Department of Public Health imposed tougher restrictions on volatile organic compound emissions produced by oil/gas development in 2008.  (I should add that they have also focused on vehicle emissions).  Yet despite these efforts, the study (Thompson CR, 2014) concludes that NMHC emissions have not decreased:

“Our initial look at past studies in the region suggests that the ambient NMHC mole fractions in this region have not decreased in recent years despite tightening of emissions standards in the O&NG industries and implementation of statewide vehicle emission inspections, although again we note that these past studies were not exactly co-located, and thus this comparison is not ideal. This observation, however, is highly significant for the NFR, as the State of Colorado continues to face issues related to non-attainment for ozone, and is currently pursuing a further tightening of regulations with the aim of capturing 95% of NMHC emissions. Even though the volume of emissions per well may be decreasing, the rapid and continuing increase in the number of wells may potentially negate any real improvements to the air quality situation. These findings, and the continuing development of this region, provide a strong argument for the continued atmospheric monitoring of this region in the coming years.”

Two things come to mind when I read that concluding paragraph.  The first is the ridiculous commercial that is constantly on TV:  the one with the banjo/bluegrass type music in the background, and the soccer mom who tells us that she is proud to say that she worked on the methane regulations, and they are the toughest in the country — so we should “breathe easy”.  I think the reason that we have some of the toughest methane regulations in the country is because our air quality is already so poor, that WE WERE FORCED TO HAVE TOUGHER REGULATIONS.  The second thing that comes to mind, is really a question of how are we going to achieve better air quality to meet the standards?  The short term answer is, we are not.  In fact, here’s a recent document outlining excuse after excuse of why Colorado should not have to meet the federal ozone standards: Colorado Ozone Failure

Ozone is bad for our health.  Benzene is bad for our health.  These are substantiated facts — not opinions.

Epidemiological studies conducted over a span of 10-20 years (maybe more) will ultimately connect the dots between the oil and gas industry, multiple pollutants, and disease.  Should we wait for that data before we take action?

I hope more people will wake up and stop drinking the company kool aid.

Citizens of Erie are “Fractivists” – According to the Oil and Gas Industry

It was an eye-opening week in Erie, Colorado, as the town underwent a surge of attention from the oil and gas industry

On Tuesday January 27, the Erie Board of Trustees rejected a moratorium on new oil/gas development by a vote of 4-3. The two week delay in the vote enabled members of the oil/gas industry to gather their troops in an effort to outnumber and marginalize those of us who supported a moratorium.

I had every intention of speaking in favor of the moratorium at the BOT meeting.  However, my work day ran long, and I arrived a few minutes late to the Erie Town Hall.  As I approached the doors to the main room, I found a dry erase board indicating that the board room was full and additional arrivals were to use the “overflow room” next door.  Upon approaching the overflow room, I found the door was propped open, and the room was so packed with people standing against the walls and even in the doorway itself that I could not get in.  At that point, I turned around, walked back to my car and went home.  I briefly considered standing outside the board room out in the cold, but I was tired and hungry from my 11 hour work day.

I returned home and immediately turned on Comcast Channel 8 to watch the meeting in real time.  I had missed the first half hour, but I’ve subsequently gone back and watched it online.  The pro-fracking supporters were certainly out in force.  They even found some Erie residents to speak on their behalf.  What was really annoying is that the oil/gas industry appeared to pack the room with people who were simply there to take up space and clap. (I am not making this up. Later in the meeting, a few of the Trustees expressed their disdain for the industry’s effort to pack the room with non-Erie residents who were simply there to prevent Erie residents from attending.)

One Vista Ridge resident who spoke out against the moratorium is an engineer who works for a local oil and gas company. She stated that she is also a mom whose home is near a couple of well sites, and she has previously endured the “temporary” discomfort of drilling/fracking operations. She thinks that the industry is making a good effort to keep the practice safe, and she wants to continue to raise her children in Erie.   Furthermore she is worried that a moratorium will not only increase taxes, but will cause her to lose her job.  (I should really point out here that the “temporary discomfort” that she referred to is a thing of the past.  Now, because multiple wells are drilled at the same site, the discomfort is far from temporary.  It actually continues for many months at a time).

Another self-described soccer mom from the Erie Commons neighborhood spoke gratefully about the amount of money that Encana has invested in the town, and that she has not found previous drilling/fracking activities to be too disruptive. In fact she actually said she just may not be as “sensitive” as other people are to a little vibration in her house.  I must assume that she cannot fully understand how the sound levels and vibrations closest to the Pratt site exceeded what even the state allows or perhaps she would not accuse her Vista Ridge neighbors of being overly sensitive.

A resident of Erie Village who works with the group Protect Colorado also argued against the moratorium. He contended that it will simply be struck down in court and will waste our tax dollars. He asked the BOT if they will protect the rights of individuals or simply give in to the “tyranny of the mob?” So apparently, people who are arguing for the right to live in their homes without being driven away by noise, vibrations, and air pollution are not individuals? We are instead a mob? I think I should take a moment to review how a democracy works.   We have a government that is by the people, for the people. The people (or the mob as you call us) have a right to voice our opinions and ask our elected officials to act on our behalf. The opinion of the majority matters; ultimately the government is supposed to reflect the will of the people.

I cannot help but notice that the overriding theme for those who argued against the moratorium is concern about money. A moratorium will raise our taxes. A moratorium will impact jobs. But what about the residents whose property values have fallen in the face of local oil/gas development? What about their money?

In response to those who argue that they live next to active wells and drilling sites and have not had any adverse health effects, I would ask, how do you then explain the people who have reported illness from living in proximity to drilling/fracking sites? If we follow the logic of those who claim drilling/fracking operations are safe, then I would argue that cigarette smoke does not cause illness or injury. Since I lived in a home with a heavy smoker until I was 20 years old and I do not have lung cancer, we can conclude that second hand smoke is not dangerous. Right?

And while we’re on the subject of cigarette smoke, look at how long it took for the medical evidence to catch up with the tobacco industry. Why is it any surprise that we are having a difficult time fighting for our health interests against an equally lucrative and powerful oil and gas industry? (Here’s a link to a compiled list of scientific articles related to health concerns and fracking operations: http://psehealthyenergy.org/data/Database_Analysis_2015.1_.27_.pdf)

Had I the opportunity to speak at the BOT meeting last Tuesday, here is what I would have said:

“What our friends and neighbors who live closest to the Pratt site endured is an injustice. And while I did not experience anything nearly as bad as what my neighbors in Vista Ridge suffered, I will still stand up and help fight for them. Why? Because we are a community – which means that we should help our friends and neighbors in need.   Now some argue that the Pratt site debacle was an anomaly, and we should not judge all drilling and fracking operations based upon the problems there.  But I think that the problems at the Pratt site, and the profoundly slow and apathetic response by the COGCC, actually proves that current regulations do not protect us.  We the citizens of Erie are asking for your protection.  We ask you to pass this moratorium and take the time to establish better safeguards for our homes and well-being.  We’re asking you to be bold.  We’re asking you to be brave.  Stand up for the citizens of Erie and approve this moratorium.”

Three of the members of our Town Council were brave and voted to pass the moratorium: Mayor Tina Harris, Trustee Jennifer Carroll, and Trustee Scott Charles. I applaud their efforts. Yet people who side with the oil/gas industry see things differently. For example, our Mayor Tina Harris, who valiantly led the meeting while fighting the flu, has been the victim of online attacks of her character from such bottom feeder groups as “RevealingPolitics”.  (You can google them and find them online if you choose —  I refuse to provide a direct website link for a group that participates in smear campaigns).  At the meeting last Tuesday, Mayor Harris briefly spoke about the outside influences that descended upon Erie in the past week.  She referred to the door to door out-of-town solicitors and said they do “not look like Erie or sound like Erie.”  She was referring to the complaints she had received from Erie residents that they had been approached by people asking them to sign a petition, which they misrepresented as being against fracking when it was in fact a petition against the moratorium.  A few residents had complained that these solicitors were rude college students who reeked of marijuana.  Yet RevealingPolitics latched on to the “not look like Erie” phrase and misconstrued it as a racist comment.  Mayor Harris has graciously apologized for any unintended misunderstanding of her statement.  But then Mayor Harris is a class act.

Perhaps the most informative part of the meeting was when Matt Lepore, director of the COGCC, took a turn at the podium. He admitted that the COGCC fell short in its response to the Pratt site, and he apologized for that. But here’s where his speech takes an interesting little turn: he said when a new well first undergoes drilling, they tend to get a lot of noise complaints. So when the first complaints came in about the Pratt site, they figured it was the typical type of noise issue, and they were slow to respond.

Slow to respond? So the COGCC ignores the initial complaints that come in because they ALWAYS get complaints when a new well goes up? Does anyone else see a problem here?

The take-home message is that we must continue to speak up. The only reason the COGCC finally listened to us is that by December 8th, 9th, and 10th they had been “deluged” with complaints, and they took notice.

Groups such as Protect Colorado and Revealing Politics refer to the citizens of Erie who ask for tighter regulations on oil/gas development, better enforcement of regulations, and more distance between our homes and drilling/fracking sites, as “fractivists”.   I believe they are trying to vilify us, and somehow make us seem like crazy radicals.  Yet, we are not asking for a ban on the industry altogether.  We are merely fighting for our health and our homes.  We are literally fighting for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Of course these are the same principles upon which our country was founded.  Instead of calling us fractivists I think they should call us patriots.

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Is drilling near an old landfill okay?

Vista Ridge and Vista Pointe neighborhoods had visits from pro-oil and gas solicitors this week.   Apparently there is a push from the oil and gas industry, espousing “responsible” energy development, in the face of a vote on a moratorium on new oil/gas drilling sites in Erie.  Yet we have not seen responsible oil/gas development in Erie.   Certainly the issues at Encana’s Pratt drilling site would beg the question, “how do you define responsible?” Is it responsible to unearth garbage while attempting to lay pipeline for drilling? Is it responsible to leave said garbage open and exposed to the air and natural elements?  http://www.dailycamera.com/erie-news/ci_27054577/state-investigates-encana-after-complaints-dug-up-trash?source=pkg

I think any reasonable person would not expect the government (local, state or federal) to allow anyone to dig up a previously closed landfill, especially a landfill that has been investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over concerns of hazardous waste. Yet that is exactly the situation we face in Erie.

Some fellow Erie residents have investigated Erie’s sordid landfill history, and have passed along an alarming document. Here is the entire EPA report filed in November 1990:  Columbine Landfill PA (PDF)   Beware, the document is long and it is absolutely horrifying. I’ll summarize the salient points for you below.

The Pratt property off of County roads 5 and 6 has been in the family since 1912. The Pratt’s deemed it unsuitable for farming, so instead partnered with John Neuhauser to form Erie Landfill in 1964. (Neuhauser had previously been in charge of another dump site in Boulder County. The county closed that dump however because it had contaminated the local groundwater). Erie Landfill initially only received solid waste from local communities. Then from 1965 to 1969, IBM partnered with Erie Landfill for waste disposal. By IBM’s admission, they disposed of “84,000 gallons of chemical waste (organics, inorganics, solvents, acids, and bases) contained within 1,500 55 gallon drums” at Erie Landfill. During this time, Sundstrand Aviation was also permitted to deposit chemical waste at the landfill. One of the chemical waste products they reportedly delivered via tanker trucks was torpedo propellant. Now here’s where the report gets even more crazy: the propellant was dumped into a pit at the landfill, and routinely set on fire as a method of disposal.

Documentation relating to activities at the landfill is scant, and much of the information within the EPA document was gathered through personal interviews of previous landfill employees. Documentation for Erie Landfill is absent completely between the years of 1969 to 1973. One can only speculate about what other hazardous waste may have found its way into the landfill during that time frame.

During the mid to late 1970’s, the Colorado Department of Health investigated numerous complaints about fires at the landfill. On February 7, 1978, the Dacono Fire Chief issued a letter to the Weld County Commissioners, indicating that he was fed up with the number of fires to which his fire department had to respond. If nothing else, it was a colossal waste of water. Here’s his letter:ColumbineLandfillLetter

Colorado Landfill, Inc. purchased the Weld County Landfills’ contract in 1979. The company opened Columbine Landfill, adjacent to the Erie Landfill. Colorado Landfill, Inc. was not interested in operating Erie Landfill, thus it sat abandoned and uncovered from 1979 to 1983. Without proper closure procedures, it literally sat open during those years. Columbine Landfill also ended up with its share of problems; black discharge with a pH of 5.8 was found in a nearby pond. Sand trap waste was found to contain cyanide and toxic levels of metals.

Western Disposal purchased the Columbine Landfill in 1985; they devised a plan to finally close the Erie Landfill.   Yet it is not clear that closure happened under Western Disposal’s ownership.  Laidlaw Waste Systems, Inc. purchased Columbine Landfill in 1988, again proposing a closure and post-closure plan for Erie Landfill. It appears from this paper trail, that closure finally reached the Erie Landfill under the ownership of Laidlaw Waste.

The EPA 1970 study intended to evaluate ongoing environmental threats from the Erie and Columbine landfills. Here is one assessment from the document:

“4.3 Air Pathway

The site does not pose a significant threat to human populations or the environment based on potential migration of contaminants via the air pathway. Onsite waste sources available to the air route are limited to landfill gas migration through the daily, intermediate and final cover. The landfill gases may contain volatile halogenated organics, methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. There are six residences, one business and approximately 43 10individuals located within a one mile radius of the site.”

The problem with the statement above given our current situation is that it assumes that refuse at the landfill will remain covered. We know from our recent history with Encana’s Pratt site that digging/uncovering has already occurred. Furthermore, the local landscape has markedly changed since the 1990 report. The subdivisions of Vista Ridge and Vista Pointe both lie within a 1 mile radius of the former Erie Landfill.

The EPA study did find evidence of ground water contamination, which threatens nearby aquifers.  It states, “the potential for release of contaminants to the ground water from the site to the alluvial 12 and shallow bedrock perched aquifers is high.” (emphasis added)  As if we are supposed to feel better, the author also points out that by Erie ordinance, “residences may not use groundwater for drinking purposes.” So in essence, it’s okay to contaminate the ground water if we get our drinking water elsewhere.

Here is the conclusion of the EPA study:

“The old Erie Landfill located on the Pratt property has documented disposal of halogenated organics and torpedo propellant in addition to other liquid and solid wastes between 1965 and 1979. Between 1979 and 1983, the site sat open and allowed precipitation to infiltrate the landfill creating the potential of leaching and ground water contamination. The Columbine Landfill which opened in 1979 accepted municipal solid wastes, sand and oil/grease trap wastes. The Laidlaw North Landfill which opened in 1985 accepted municipal solid waste only.

Alluvial ground water contamination is documented in wells 103A & 103B at Laidlaw North. The shallow bedrock wells appear to show degradation of ground water quality. The south draw shows stressed vegetation around a pond and spring which indicates possible contamination to either the pond or the spring which feeds it. The major pathway of concern is the ground water pathway with contamination to the alluvial aquifer, the shallow bedrock aquifer and a nearby spring.”

So to reiterate, the EPA assessment did in fact find ground water contamination that is likely to threaten two nearby aquifers.   Yet they did not classify the “Columbine site” (which groups the Columbine and Erie landfills together) as a “National Priority” – meaning it did not qualify for a “Superfund” clean-up.   The algorithm for determining whether a site qualifies for clean up depends upon the degree of contamination, as well as estimated health impacts on a population.   site_assessment_info_sheet (PDF) Consequently, the size of the population that may be impacted by the contamination matters. The problem is Erie’s population has exploded in the last 15 years, which is something that the EPA could not have known (and clearly did not predict) back in 1990.

And that leads us back to today. Encana’s drilling and digging at the Pratt well site has uncovered parts of the Erie Landfill. I cannot believe that the EPA considered this as a possibility in determining that the hazardous chemicals contained within the landfill would not pose a threat to the surrounding community.

So what can we expect when a landfill closes? There are federal guidelines concerning landfill closure, and post-closure protocols. On the EPA website, post-closure maintenance is listed as “30 years from site closure, but this can be shortened or extended by the director of an approved state program as necessary to ensure protection of human health and the environment.” Furthermore, during the 30 years, the waste containment is not to be compromised:  “Any use of the land during this period must not disturb the integrity or operation of any of the waste containment systems or the monitoring systems.”  http://www.epa.gov/solidwaste/nonhaz/municipal/landfill/financial/mswclose.htm#2://

Let’s for a moment assume that the Erie Landfill actually closed in 1985 (although there is evidence to suggest it did not actually close until Laidlaw took over in 1988).  Given that it is 2015 we are at exactly the 30 year benchmark.  Drilling at the Pratt site began in 2014, just shy of the 30 year term.  And for the sake of argument, why is 30 the magic number?  Do we really think that the EPA intended that it would be okay to dig up landfills when we reach 30 years?  I doubt it.

But I’m doing more than just sitting back and speculating.  I’ve already left a voicemail message for the EPA Columbine Site Manager.  I want to know what land use options are considered acceptable for sites of previous landfills that are known to be filled with hazardous waste.

The true irony here, is that 2 years ago, I read a book entitled “Full Body Burden: Growing up in the nuclear shadow of Rocky Flats” by Kristen Iversen.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.  It’s excellent.  I remember comfortably sitting on my couch, devouring each page of the book, enraged at the crimes the government committed against the environment and the people of Colorado in the name of national security.  At the same time, I was grateful that I live in Erie, 20 miles away from the majority of the plutonium contamination.

Silly me.  We have our own toxic wasteland right here in Erie.

 

 

 

Outrage and Frustration

The drilling rig at Encana’s Pratt site did in fact go away.  And the wall finally came down.  However, peace and tranquility is far from restored in our small town of Erie, CO.

Since August, 2014, the Erie Board of Trustees has been in negotiations with Encana (oil and gas company) to revise the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that had previously been in place since 2012.  The MOU has been endorsed by both the Town of Erie and the oil and gas industry as a landmark agreement that should serve as an example of successful cooperation between municipalities and oil/gas companies.  It is supposed to address public concerns about notification, setbacks, and health impacts of drilling operations.   Click link to read: Article from Boulder Daily Camera newspaper

After 5 months of negotiations, the Board of Trustees was set to vote on the new MOU at the town meeting on Tuesday January 13.   However, after the MOU proposal was published in its written form on Friday January 9, there was public outcry, at least on Facebook.   By Monday January 12, Mayor Harris and the Board of Trustees had pulled the MOU from the agenda.  Instead, the Board would consider an ordinance to place a temporary moratorium on oil/gas development within the town of Erie.   I was thrilled with Erie’s apparent change in direction.

At the meeting on January 13, 17 Erie residents, including myself, spoke out in favor of a moratorium.  Many Vista Ridge residents detailed their horrific experiences of being unable to sleep or work within their homes due to the extreme noise/vibrations from the drilling at the Pratt site.  Some residents also brought up the fact that the activities of digging at the Pratt site unearthed portions of a previous landfill that then remained uncovered; exposed to the air and wind, garbage of various varieties floated around the neighborhood.  I stood up and explained that I believe current regulations to be completely ineffective at protecting our air quality.  I provided details of how I experienced a chemical/burning odor when I went into my yard at 4:45pm on Wednesday, December 10, a time when my neighbors in Vista Ridge reported seeing flames rising up above the sound barrier walls at the Pratt site.  I called the COGCC that night, and filed a written complaint the next day.  The COGCC performed an air quality inspection on Friday December 12, found no violation at that time, and dismissed my complaint.    I argued that intermittent air quality testing is completely ineffective when gas flaring is also done on an intermittent basis.  Air quality must be measured continuously;  if only measured sporadically, we are missing data that is vital to understanding the complete picture.

A few people who work within the oil and gas industry also spoke during the period of public comment.  They believe that wells are safe and insisted that they have no problems with their families living nearby.   None of these people indicated that they live within Vista Ridge or Vista Pointe however.  They focused on the belief that a moratorium on oil/gas development will damage the economy.

A representative from the Pratt family also spoke.  She declared that her family has “farmed” the land for 75 years, and that Encana is a “good” company.  I take issue with her claim that the Pratt family has “farmed” the land, when in fact, they have used it as a dump/landfill.  To me, farming implies some semblance of good stewardship of the land.  In reality, the Pratt landfill has been historically plagued with violations.  Erie residents who have lived here for 30+ years have readily admitted to me that they will not drink the water here.  Perhaps this is why: Columbine – site memo_1992inspection (PDF).  More recently, the Colorado Department of Public Health has investigated the Pratt landfill site for violations of solid waste disposal: CO Dept Public Health Pratt (PDF).

Once the period of public comment ended, the Board continued with discussion of other agenda items.  Knowing that the meeting would likely stretch on for hours, I went home and watched the remainder of the meeting on Comcast Channel 8.  Sometime after 9pm, the Board began to discuss the Moratorium.  The following is my summary of the relevant discussion points:

The Trustees indicated that they were uncomfortable with the wording in the written version of the MOU.  Essentially, what they believed they had negotiated verbally was not reflected in the written version.  For this reason, the Mayor and Trustees pulled the MOU off of the agenda and replaced it with the proposed 1 year moratorium.  They explained that this was a move to bring both parties back to the table for ongoing discussion of the MOU.

During the Board’s comment period, an Encana representative was allowed to speak and answer the Board’s questions. Many of us find it odd that Encana had an opportunity for ongoing discussion with the Board while we, the residents of Erie, did not have that same opportunity.  The Encana representative admitted that Encana had filed 3 new permits for 9 wells within the past 24 hours as a response to the city considering a moratorium.

I cannot recall whether it was the Encana representative or one of the other members of the oil/gas industry in the room who drew the following conclusion, but I will include it here:  He said that The town of Erie requests that oil/gas not perform drilling in the summer because it is too loud during a time our windows are more likely to be open, and yet we also do not want drilling performed on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  He said, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”   To me that argument is ridiculous.  Erie residents are not getting any cake at all.   Cake is tasty, sweet, and enjoyable.  Drilling is loud and creates nothing but misery for the people unfortunate enough to live near it.

Trustee Carroll, Trustee Charles, and Mayor Harris spoke in favor of the moratorium.  All expressed concern over what citizens in the Vista Ridge neighborhood have experienced with Encana’s Pratt site drilling.  Trustee Charles summed it up best when he stated that one person’s freedom ends where another begins.  In other words, landowners have drilling rights, but those rights end when they infringe on the rights of a homeowner to live in his/her home.

As discussions continued, Trustee Gruber proposed a 2 week stay on the moratorium vote.  He suggested it as an eleventh hour attempt to buy more time to salvage the MOU.  Trustee Carroll argued that since 5 months of negotiations had failed to yield an agreeable MOU, she doubted that 2 weeks would be adequate time to reach a resolution.

Trustees Woog, Schuut and Moore felt that voting in favor of a moratorium would merely give Encana and Anadarko (as well as other oil/gas companies) less incentive to work with the town.  Instead, they feared that oil/gas companies would railroad the town because they really only need to answer to the state.

More discussion ensued.  Ultimately, there was debate over whether or not delaying the vote on the moratorium for 2 weeks would incite a wave of permit applications from Encana and Anadarko in an attempt to attain approval prior to a possible moratorium.  The Encana representative in the room made a “good faith” promise not to submit any new permit applications during the next two weeks.  However, Anadarko did not have a representative present.  Furthermore, Trustee Charles indicated that the Trustees had earlier received a disrespectful/offensive email from someone at Anadarko who was angered by the possible moratorium.  Then, in a strange twist, the Town Administrator received a text message from someone at Anadarko, directing the Trustees to check their emails.  Anadarko apparently also agreed not to submit new permits during the next 2 weeks.  During this time, Facebook exploded.  Erie residents who were following the Board meeting were incredulous that someone from Anadarko could simply text the Town Administrator during a meeting and impact the Board’s decision.

The Board voted in favor of waiting two weeks to vote on the moratorium.  That vote will now take place on Tuesday January 27.  In the meantime, a meeting for further deliberations over content of the MOU will be held with the Trustees, Mayor, Erie residents, COGCC representative, Encana, and Anadarko.  Unfortunately, this meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday January 20, at 5pm.  I suspect it will be difficult for those of us with full time jobs to make it to the meeting on time, if at all.  Fortunately, if you cannot make the meeting, Trustee Carroll will accept your emails with specific additions you would like to see in the new MOU.  Here is her email address:  jcarroll@erieco.gov

There was a lot of anger, frustration, and venting on the Pratt&WC monitoring Facebook page after the Board meeting.  Unfortunately, some of that anger was directed at specific Trustees, and the comments were often unkind.  I think we all need to remember that while we may be angry and want our Trustees to vote differently, we need to refrain from what amounts to bullying on social media.  It is not fair to malign someone’s character because he/she came to a different conclusion than we have.  We need to be better than that.  And selfishly, we cannot afford to alienate the members of our town government, as they are truly the people we most need on our side.  If you do not agree with someone’s opinion, vote for someone else in the next election.  But remember that all of these people have chosen to be public servants, and that is a noble cause.  They deserve to be treated with respect.  When we disagree with them, we need to make logical, articulate arguments as to why they should see things as we do.  Criticizing someone’s character on social media only damages what we are ultimately fighting for.

I plan to email Trustee Carroll to ask that the following be added to the MOU:

1.  There must be constant air quality monitoring (checking levels of volatile gases) at any drilling/fracking site;  monitoring must not be intermittent.  Certainly the once a week “walk by” monitoring by an Encana employee that is currently outlined in the MOU is grossly inadequate.

2.  Set backs should be at least 1000 ft from any home or other occupied building.

3.  When A and C level noise exceeds state regulations, drilling must be stopped immediately.  The fact that it took 30 days for the drilling to stop at the Pratt site caused undo suffering for the nearby residents.

4.  Drilling through an existing landfill should never be allowed.  (While I realize that the permit at the Pratt site will not be impacted by a revision to the MOU, it is not unreasonable to expect that future drilling at other sites should not unearth landfill waste).

5.  Diesel drilling rigs should not be allowed to operate within Erie.  All rigs should be electric.

Finally, I want to revisit the fact that 17 Erie residents spoke up at the Town Meeting last week, arguing in favor of the 1 year moratorium.  While 17 people may seem like a small number to some, consider the effort involved in attending the meeting and preparing to speak.  Certainly I had worked a long day and was not excited to enter the crowded Town Hall and stand in the back for over an hour, awaiting my turn at the podium.  I know other people who wanted to attend were unable to do so due to travel and work obligations.  I was fortunate to be home in time to get to a 6:30pm meeting, as many days that would not be possible.  We are all people with busy lives who would certainly rather spend the evening at home with our families.  But the issue of drilling/fracking has invaded our space and our lives; we feel compelled to speak up and have our voices heard.

What happens now?

Although Encana announced it would pull out of Erie and halt drilling at the Pratt site, that has not exactly happened just yet.  They needed to complete the drilling of the well that they started before they could cap it and close down operations.  Some Vista Ridge neighbors have complained that it has been the noisiest week yet.

On Wednesday evening, I attended a meeting for residents who are interested in learning more about our legal rights in battling this drilling/fracking operation.  Approximately 25 people came out to listen to attorneys Matt Sura and Eric Huber, both of whom have experience in representing the rights of individual towns and homeowners who are impacted by oil and gas operations.

Here are the key points I took away from the meeting:

1. There are 52,000 oil/gas wells in the state of Colorado.  40% of these wells lie within Weld County.  (Part of Erie is within Weld County; part of it is within Boulder County).  There are only 27 inspectors for 52,000 wells — so essentially the industry does its own inspections.

2.  Only 10% of wells in Colorado are drilled in residential areas, so what we are experiencing is not common.  However, this will become more commonplace as the oil and gas industry continues to expand.

3.  The oil and gas industry is EXEMPT from all zoning.  So even though we live within a “residential” area, Encana can come in and operate under “light industrial” noise regulations.  (However, as we all know, they exceeded the noise limits even for “light industrial”  which is why we became a newsworthy bunch of complainants).

4.  As complainants, we have rights.  (This is why it is absolutely essential that EVERY resident who has been bothered by noise, vibrations, and odors fill out a complaint form 18 with the COGCC.  It is not too late.  Go fill out the form online today).  Now that we have filed official complaints, we have the right to be a part of the resolution process through a hearing with the COGCC.  For example, we can ask for the drilling operation to be moved further away from our homes.  We can ask for air quality monitoring.  We can ask them NOT to flare.  (Matt Sura was appalled when residents described flames towering above the sound barrier walls.  He said they absolutely do not need to do that.  It is inexcusable).

5.  Another tact we can take is to file a “nuisance” lawsuit.  We have the right to enjoy our property and our homes.  A neighbor cannot come in and jackhammer for 10 hours per day.  If they do that, we call the police and make them stop.  In the case of oil/gas drilling, we can file a lawsuit because they have created such a noise and air pollution nuisance, that we have been unable to enjoy our properties and remain within our homes.

6.  The oil and gas industry has a lot of power and protections.  However they do not like bad press.  (Thank you Boulder Daily Camera and ABC news for reporting the problems we have experienced!).

7.  A retired geophysicist present at the meeting rebuffed the widely circulated theory that Encana ran into a “geologic anomaly” that caused the drilling to be louder and more difficult than normal.  He explained how they first come through and map the area; they have a very good understanding of what they are drilling into.  (Side note:  Despite the elaborate mapping methods, they did not realize that they would be digging up garbage as they laid pipeline.  How did they miss this?  http://www.dailycamera.com/erie-news/ci_27063693/encana-submits-plan-investigation-into-erie-trash)

8.  Everyone should keep a diary of events.  If we do pursue a lawsuit and/or COGCC hearing, we will want specific events to use as evidence to back up our claims.

9.  Fracking is supposedly twice as loud as the drilling process.  SERIOUSLY?  TWICE AS LOUD AS WHAT WE HAVE ALREADY EXPERIENCED?  (Side note: I have this dream of creating my own fracking commercial, as a parody of the pro-fracking commercials we see all the time on TV.  In it, we would have the beautiful view of the mountains, and our homes in Vista Ridge and Vista Pointe, families sending kids to school in the morning…..with that awful rig in the background.  We would show a mom waking up in the middle of the night to the cries of her kids who are having nightmares about monsters because of the loud noise.  It could end with the video of the flames shooting up above the sound barrier wall.  If we put it together on You Tube, maybe it would go viral).

When I returned home from the meeting that night, I was energized by the possible avenues we can pursue in order to prevent Encana from coming back and starting this drilling process again.  As I started to explain everything to my husband (who wasn’t feeling well, and was already lying in bed), he said, “Wait.  Do you hear that?”  Of course.  It’s the low hum of the drilling operation at the Pratt site.  It always seems to get louder and more noticeable at night.  And we live in Vista Pointe.

There many reasons for us to band together as residents of Erie.  Some of us are experiencing noise/vibration worse than anything you can imagine.  Some of us are fortunate enough to have it a little easier — for now.  The issue is, if we don’t all fight to help each other, others of us will be in the same situation in a few months (i.e. if Encana decides to come back and develop the Waste Connections site).  There are also new sites that are up for permit approval (Morgan Hill is one of them).  The hub proposal is also extremely concerning: http://www.co.weld.co.us/assets/d3c91c3Ca17271A29361.pdf.  We need to work with our Town Trustees and Mayor to protect residential areas.  I also think the town should look into retaining Matt Sura’s services to help our town establish tougher regulations.

As I have watched local awareness of the oil and gas industry operations unfold, I have become increasingly impressed with the level of intelligence and education of my neighbors who are posting articles and opinions on the Pratt and WC well monitoring Facebook Page.  We have a lot of good people in Erie.  Let’s continue to work together to fight for our rights.

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