Erie, at the epicenter of oil opposition

ERIE — Angie Nordstrum can’t stop worrying about the natural-gas wells planned a few hundred yards from Redhawk Elementary School, where her 7-year-old son is a student.

“We have this wonderful little suburban utopia here and then all these gas wells infringe upon the community,” Nordstrum said.

Nordstrum isn’t alone in her worries. Anxiety over natural-gas drilling pervades this town on the Weld and Boulder county line. Some residents believe that hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to release gas from shale, has poisoned their air.

They point to air-quality studies conducted in Colorado that have shown the presence of pollutants associated with oil and gas development. Others dislike the traffic and noise and what they say are unsightly wells.

Fracking operations began setting up in and around Erie around 2005; it is only now confronting challenges related to oil and gas development that some towns throughout the West have dealt with for decades.

The concerns of Erie parents and others can be found elsewhere, and the potential for a backlash from communities where drilling activity is creeping ever-closer to residential areas is something the industry is sensitive about and hopes to minimize.

Today, many Erie residents have wells just a few hundred feet from their homes. There are 188 producing wells in Erie.

The proximity of wells to everyday living has given rise to one particularly energetic group, Erie Rising. Four mothers, including Nordstrum, founded the organization to oppose fracturing operations, also known as “fracking.”

The moms can’t prove it, but they believe that ailments such as bloody and runny noses, colds and other health problems they say are common in town are linked to fracking.

“There’s a large number of kids with those problems here,” Nordstrum said.

A survivor of thyroid cancer, she is concerned that fracking can increase her risk of a recurrence. She points to a recent study conducted by a researcher from the University of Colorado at Denver Public School of Health showing that people living near hydraulic fracturing drilling sites have a greater risk of suffering from cancer and other illnesses.

Lisa McKenzie, the study’s author, found toxic chemicals such as the known carcinogen benzene in air samples collected from monitoring stations in Garfield County between 2008 and 2010. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, contains benzene and many other chemicals, according to the study.

Industry officials disputed the findings, with the Colorado Oil & Gas Association pointing out that the state aggressively regulates air pollution.

Jennifer Palazzolo, another Erie Rising co-founder, has a 6-year-old daughter who attends Redhawk Elementary, which was designed to meet green building standards.

The group doesn’t oppose natural gas development. Palazzolo just thinks it takes place too close to homes and schools.

She also is concerned about ozone pollution in an area with already high ozone levels.

“Let’s put this on hold … get some answers and then go from there,” she said.

The group has gained prominence since its formation in November. It has amassed a following on Facebook with more than 570 “likes” as well as influenced local leaders.

In March, another Erie Rising co-founder, April Beach, asked a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to present findings from his unpublished study on air quality to the town Board of Trustees.

As part of a nationwide study, scientist Steven Brown found that Erie, a town with a population of 18,000, contained higher levels of pollution associated with oil and gas development than Pasadena, Calif., and Houston. Those emissions, measured by a tower next to Erie High School, included methane, propane and butane.

Shortly after, Erie leaders passed a six-month moratorium barring new applications for mineral extraction, including oil and gas development.

The town joined Boulder and Longmont in passing temporary drilling bans. Erie’s prohibition does not affect applications approved before the ban.

Cheryl Hauger, a former trustee who vacated her seat after losing a contentious mayoral election, proposed the prohibition three times this year. The Board of Trustees finally approved the measure in a decisive 7-0 vote.

Hauger explained that when drilling started in Erie, oil and gas companies were not compelled to disclose ingredients in fracking fluids. The state law on that question was recently changed, and she grew concerned when she saw a list of those chemicals, which can include carcinogens.

Industry representatives contend that fracking is safe. They say cement and steel casing prevents chemicals from entering surface and ground water.

Encana, which drills the most natural-gas wells in Erie, uses several kinds of equipment to reduce emissions, spokesman Doug Hock said. In addition to vapor-recovery equipment and pneumatic devices on pumps, the company relies on ultraviolet cameras that help it detect and stop emissions that leak from its systems.

Mayor Joe Wilson, who narrowly defeated Hauger, voted for the moratorium partly because residents had raised concerns about oil and gas drilling. Town leaders also timed the drilling prohibition with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s creation of a task force aimed at clarifying regulatory jurisdiction between state and local governments on oil and gas development.

Setbacks are one of the issues being reviewed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. At the moment, the state requires a 150-foot setback in rural areas and a 350-foot setback in developed areas. Setbacks would have been raised to 1,000 feet under a bill that died in the Statehouse earlier this year.

Whether Erie will extend its moratorium is unknown. Wilson is hoping for an outcome that can satisfy all.

“Energy production and citizen safety can coexist,” he said.

He blames fracking fears on activist rhetoric that he said “mischaracterized the actual risks, preying on the fears and anger of those seeking to keep their kids safe.”

Activists have sent emails and posted items on Facebook that were “nonsense,” he said.

“Some of it borders on ridiculous,” he said.

But it isn’t just members of Erie Rising who have expressed concern.

Jim McKenna, a resident since 2002, believes that the drilling in Erie has gone too far.

“When they’re drilling so much that we’ve got air pollution from it, I think that’s overdoing it,” he said.

Sandy Hutzley, owner of FRP Apparel, an embroidery and printing shop in downtown Erie, believes that more research should be done before fracking proceeds.

“Is it a hazard, or is it not?” she said. “We don’t know. Do we want to wait five, 10 years from now and discover that it is and that we’re all getting sick and developing cancer?”

After trucks crossed through her property to drill nearby, Marie Gabriella got a sign warning them not to trespass.

“Every single time one of them comes on my property, I call the sheriff,” she said.

But not everyone here opposes drilling.

A well one block away from Erie resident Erin Bajcar’s home never made anyone sick, nor did it contaminate their water, she said. She considers tanks at the well site no more unsightly than solar panels.

Bajcar even has benefited directly from drilling. She receives a small payment from Encana because she owns mineral rights on her property under which the oil and gas company has drilled.

“I haven’t seen anything that really tells me, solid proof, that there’s any danger,´ said Bajcar, who has lived in Erie for two decades.

Encana’s Hock said the company has responded to residents’ apprehension by holding public meetings to give them a chance to ask questions and express concerns. Company representatives also meet with community leaders regularly.

Encana even has offered to give activists tours of its drilling rigs.

“We feel like we’ve made a strong effort to address those concerns,” he said. “This is new activity for some of them. It’s not surprising that they might have questions or concerns regarding safety and impacts and so we want to be sure to address those.”

The Colorado Oil & Gas Association has reacted by hiring a full-time community outreach coordinator.

That coordinator, who started in March, will work to improve communications with residents and organize forums statewide, association President Tisha Schuller said.

“I think we’re in the beginning of a long work in progress,” she said. “It’s going to take a while to establish rapport and relationships and be a resource for communities.”

The town of Erie ultimately cannot control whether oil and gas producers drill in the area; regulatory authority generally rests with the state, not municipal governments.

But the town wants to make sure that residents feel comfortable with the activity.

That’s why it is asking producers to capture more of their emissions, said Fred Diehl, the town spokesman.

“We think the technology exists and that the industry can do better in terms of recovering fugitive emissions,” Diehl said.

In addition, the town will spend $50,000 on water-monitoring equipment this year that its few residents who rely on wells can use for free, he said.

“You have citizens who have concerns about these operations and want to make sure they’re done safely,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work with the operators and the state on this.”

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