Commissioner straw poll supports 500-ft setbacks anywhere

I listened (off and on) to the hearing again today. This morning Dr. Chris Urbina, executive director of the CDPHE, made a comment that in his line of work they hear a lot of complaints but no one ever contacts them when things are fine. Which is a bit like the farrmer complaining that he never hears from the cows until they want to be milked – but whatever. In the past couple years I have certainly done my share of complaining. So I just wanted to say in the spirit of not complaining, the air quality in western GarCo is quite good today. I haven’t seen the air quality this good since October – during the election campaign. In fact during the past 3-4 months I’ve noticed that the air quality gets really good during election campaigns and COGCC hearings. Why? Well I’m no scientist and I don’t have any evidence but it’s pretty common knowledge around here that when all eyes are focused on the oil & gas industry as they are during election seasons and COGCC hearings, they make an effort to clean up their act. I thought it worth mentioning, in case anyone is paying attention.

There were too many witnesses today to go into all of them, so again I’m just giving you my impressions of the highlights. I don’t get to listen to the whole thing and it’s often difficult to hear the livestream, though I did appreciate having it so I could listen. But I’m deaf in my left ear and was entertaining a 4-year old at the same time. Between the two I missed a lot.

Matt Sura was first up this morning. He’s the attorney representing the conservation groups, including WCC. At the outset Sura asked for a delay of one month on the draft setback proposal to give the Commissioners time to consider all the testimonies and exhibits presented at the hearings. He went on to discuss more specific changes needed in the current draft proposal. Here are a few:

  • For new wells on existing pads, operators should be required to bring those wells and well pads to the most up-to-date standards.
  • The current draft proposal gives an exemption if a surface use agreement allows for setbacks closer than 500 feet. But that exemption should not apply when the setback in the surface agreement puts the well too close to a neighboring property owner.
  • The draft proposal allows operators to seek a variance to the setback rule. During the variance process affected residents should be allowed in as stakeholders.

Under cross-examination Sura was asked how they arrived at their request for a 1,000-ft setback. He replied it was based on complaints from residents in Garfield County over a period of time. The bulk of the complaints came from residents living within 1,000 feet of a well. Studies show and everyone – even industry — agrees the chemicals dissipate and impacts lesson at further distances from wells.

Of course Dr. Urbina asked Sura the 1.8-million-dollar question: Do you agree we need more studies? Sura said they should go ahead with more studies but in the meantime they should adopt the 1,000-ft setback as a prudent baseline to address the risks right now.

A bit of discussion ensued. You see the Commissioners like to point to Weld County where gas drilling has been going on forever. Apparently a study was done on cancer rates in Weld Co and they were not found to be elevated so they like to point to that but Sura argued that doesn’t take into consideration any of the other health issues that studies have shown and witnesses have testified to and will testify to. He added “the standard should not be based on the experiences of one county – Weld.”

Sura also invited the Commissioners to take a citizen tour of the gaspatch in Garfield County to experience gas drilling from residents’ front porches. It seemed his invitation received a less than enthusiastic response.

Dr. Theo Colborn testified at 10:00 a.m. via video presentation. It was difficult to hear her and there were a few technical glitches during her testimony and cross-examination. The main focus of Dr. Colborn’s testimony was, of course, the recently released, peer-reviewed study: “An Exploratory Study of Air Quality near Natural Gas Operations.” She covered what you can read here in the study:

TEDX Study: An Exploratory Study of Air Quality near Natural Gas Operations

TEDX Study: Findings and Implications

TEDX Study: Health Effects References

As Dr. Colborn made clear in the study’s Abstract she also stressed during her testimony, which is: “Methylene chloride, a toxic solvent not reported in products used in drilling or hydraulic fracturing, was detected 73% of the time; several times in high concentrations. A literature search of the health effects of the NMHCs revealed that many had multiple health effects, including 30 that affect the endocrine system, which is susceptible to chemical impacts at very low concentrations, far less than government safety standards.”

Dr. Colborn pointed out that methylene chloride is not listed among the chemicals used during the fracking process because it is used as a cleaning solvent at the well pads. So in essence it is not regulated by disclosure rules like fracking chemicals are. However it is present, it is dangerous, and it poses serious health risks to workers and the public in general. Her point, as I understood it, was to make Commissioners aware that her study showed there are other factors besides dust, noise, lights, and even VOCs that are a result of the drilling process. These non-methane VOCs, such as methyl chloride, have impacts on worker safety, public health, and the environment.

I think it was Dr. Urbina who again brought up the “soup” of pollution factors and how that was factored into this study. Dr. Colborn explained that the well pad they tested is in a remote, rural area. It is a single pad and not located in a gasfield near other wells and well pads. The well pad was already constructed and much of the testing occurred during the drilling process, so there was very little truck traffic and no lines of trucks idling as is sometimes common in larger gasfields. The only chemicals in the area were coming from the well pad.

I thought the question about “soup” showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the conclusion – or message – of Dr. Colborn’s study as well as her testimony. To me she was clearly saying the drilling process creates its own “soup” of pollution factors.

But then I guess if none of the Commissioners have ever been to the gasfields without the benefit of industry escort – not on a citizen tour – then it’s probably hard to understand what Dr. Colborn means. Unfortunately we in Garfield County hear her message loud and clear.

I also heard some of the individual witnesses from the WCC Combined Witness Testimony. Julie Boyle from Weld County painted a somewhat more dismal picture of drilling than the rosy one presented over the past couple days. I also heard Duke Cox, Tommy Thompson, Karen Trulove, and Bonnie Smeltzer. You can click the link above to read an overview of the individuals’ testimonies, although hearing them speak was far more compelling than reading their testimonies, and also very emotional for me. Knowing from personal experience the heartbreak, loss, and illness my friends and neighbors have endured lo, these many years I can’t be objective about what I heard today, or even describe it. It simply brought up too many painful memories. I’ve lived here too long and I know too much.

Our good friend Tommy Thompson put it rather bluntly though powerfully during his testimony [and I paraphrase]. There’s nothing we can do to change what’s happened in Garfield County. We can’t undo the pollution to our water and our environment in our lifetimes. We can’t change the past — the lives lost, or the people whose health has been ruined. We’re beyond help here.  The damage – and it is great – has been done. We struggle with the impacts daily. Yet we must do what we can to bring awareness to the risks of oil & gas development and the very real impacts as we go forward into the future.

Finally I heard quite a bit of the Commissioners’ deliberations following the testimony portion. They dealt with specific changes to the 500-ft draft proposal. They argued about urban and rural designation then finally decided to leave out that designation altogether. But I didn’t catch all the little provisional votes they did on every little detail. So I’m not sure whether the coalition of conservation groups got everything they asked for. Probably not. You can be sure more details will be forthcoming as to the fine print.

Mainly what you need to know is at the end, the provisional straw poll vote was in favor of the 500-ft setback with the changes they discussed. Staff will make the changes to the draft proposal, which is expected to be finished possibly Thursday, January 17. The Commissioners will then have to decide on a meeting date to vote on the final setback proposal.

The hearing adjourned at 5:40 p.m.

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