by Leslie Robinson, Grand Valley Citizens Alliance
Because of negative experiences western Garfield County residents were encountering with oil-and-gas development, the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA) was formed in 1997. Later, the Battlement Concerned Citizens (BCC) formed. With guidance from Western Colorado Congress, now impacted citizens were empowered to negotiate with operators and government decision-makers to protect health, property and quality of life while living in the “gas patch.”
That is why GVCA and BCC members have been engaged with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Oil and Gas Task Force, whose mission is to help minimize land use conflicts that can occur when siting oil and gas facilities near homes, schools and recreational areas.
GVCA and BCC have never been opposed to the responsible development of our natural gas and energy resources. We recognize the role industry plays in our local economics and we support energy independence. However, we cannot ignore local citizen complaints.
Although there have been improvements in oil and gas regulations, conflicts between operators and communities persist. These are mostly because the placement of production sites — with drilling, fracking, flaring, condensate tanks, in essence, massive chemical industrial sites — are too close to where we live, work, go to school, and to our residential water resources.
Can you imagine waking suddenly at night unable to breathe because of heavy diesel odors coming through your windows? Or you see gas flaring from a smokestack on a pad visible from your home, then your son gets a wicked rash and your neighbor is rushed to the emergency room with breathing difficulties. Or imagine feeling and hearing for days diesel motors running and low, penetrating vibrating sounds emanating from a nearby drill site.
These are not anecdotal stories. These complaints have come from real people in our communities. Our members related these experiences to the task force members when they were in Rifle.
We emphasized to the task force that if most drilling operations developed in western Garfield County had been positioned farther than 1,000 feet from homes, instead of the 150- to 500-foot limits set by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), we believe a good portion of local conflicts, whether health-related, odor complaints or other grievances, could have been averted.
For instance, an informal survey of Garfield County citizen complaints from drilling activity in 2007 noted that 91 percent of the odor complaints occurred within 2,000 feet of a production site, and noise complaints dropped significantly after 1,000 feet.
Recent health studies lend more support to our views. The Garfield Board of County Commissioners sponsored the “Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment,” a scientific study by the Colorado School of Public Health, and the evidence-based recommendations supported increased health-based setbacks, too. The researchers noted that although COGCC regulations may indicate quarter-mile setbacks, since odors have been noticed up to a half-mile away into residential areas, their endorsement “may be beyond the COGCC rule at one or two well pads.”
Research by the Endocrine Disruptions Exchange and other university health professionals have also raised concerns about human exposure to airborne chemicals from produced water with BTEX hydrocarbons and heavy metals. We recognize that these findings require further research; however, in the absence of more data, we believe that state setback regulations should be based on ensuring the protection of citizen health and welfare.
In addition to this accredited information, many other worried citizens from across the state living close to oil-and-gas production sites also provided similar documentation to the task force.
We found it disheartening when, at its Feb. 2 meeting, the majority of task force members did not listen to citizen input by refusing to consider any setback recommendations. Therefore, in our opinion, they failed to address their mandated mission.
Last year, concerned citizens and nonprofit civic groups statewide came together to support more remedial measures from oil-and-gas industrial development. They garnered enough voter signatures to put setback initiatives on the ballot, but dropped the effort to support Hickenlooper’s task force concept.
For GVCA and BCC members, recent task force inaction on health-based setback limits has only increased our determination to further protection of healthy communities, quality of life and water resources for our residents in Battlement Mesa and Garfield County. Our voices are not alone.
No doubt, after spending hundreds of hours and miles to demonstrate needed setback changes in oil-and-gas regulations before an unresponsive task force, more citizens and civic groups statewide will be united in their resolve.
In conclusion, protecting the health and safety of Colorado citizens should be paramount. The task force’s failure to address increased setback limits in residential areas could bring the issue back to the initiative process.
Leslie Robinson is chairperson of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. Dave Devanney is chairperson of Battlement Concerned Citizens.