The Battlement Mesa HIA story

A drilling rig just outside the Battlement Mesa PUD in 2012. [Photo by George Frey/Bloomberg]

An drilling rig just outside the Battlement Mesa PUD in 2012. [Photo by George Frey/Bloomberg]

Continued from The real Battlement Mesa story

The Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment was a groundbreaking study that altered county politics and the public’s perception of oil & gas development.

Dr. Jeffrey Jacquet’s retrospective of the Battlement Mesa HIA was published in November 2014:

The Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment
A case study and oral history of process and lessons learned

Dr. Jeffrey Jacquet is an assistant professor of Sociology and Rural Studies at South Dakota State University. His research on Battlement Mesa was conducted for Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group that explores community development and land management issues in western states.

For his research, Dr. Jacquet relied on “primary documents; meeting minutes; newspaper stories; and 13 in-depth interviews and focus groups performed with Garfield County residents, current and former local government officials, outside observers, and HIA report authors.” Please read the 30-page report, which includes many interesting comments from the researchers and authors. Their evaluations are eye-opening.

Now let’s go back to 2003. The COGCC began allowing 10-acre well spacing by special permit only. Oil & gas development had ramped up to over 1,600 active oil & gas wells in Garfield County by spring 2004. The steady drumbeat of the boom had begun.

Look at these numbers over the past eleven years:
2004 – about 1,600 active wells
2009 – about 4,000 active wells
2015 – over 11,000 active wells

On March 09, 2004, up on West Divide (south of Silt) the earth shook from a massive gas kick at the “Arbaney” well. The ground rumbled over a mile away in all directions. Three weeks later, an estimated 115 million cubic feet blow out of natural gas followed at the “Schwartz” well. Within days bubbles appeared in Divide Creek. The bubbles flared up from a lit match. That was the beginning of what became known as the West Divide Seep. Encana was the operator of both wells involved in the blowouts.

In May, 2004, the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board was formed by BOCC resolution.

In August 2004, a COGCC public hearing was held at the Ramada Inn in Glenwood Springs. Encana agreed to pay a $371,000 fine.

Garfield County Commissioner John Martin voiced his disappointment that “EnCana, while admitting to violations, is not admitting any liability related to the gas seep.” He asked, “If they take the responsibility, how is it that they don’t have the liability?” He speculated that the company feared leaving itself legally exposed in the case of any lawsuits filed in connection with the suit if it admitted liability.

On the whole, citizens and local government officials were disgusted by the mere slap on the wrist Encana received for such massive, ongoing environmental degradation. The worm had turned. The natives grew more restless.

In 2004-2005, as gas drilling ramped up in the Garfield County area, there were a number of high-profile instances of environmental contamination, combined with a number of sensational stories of health problems associated with natural gas development. Additionally, the county was experiencing energy industry-related population growth that put stresses on local communities and governments. Respondents noted there was a perceived vacuum of regulatory authority and responsibility. “Early on, the industry really didn’t come in with identifying and addressing the impact that they were going to have on this rural community and …so they were perceived as kind of just rolling over everybody. So we had (…) all kinds of different issues from a social standpoint. And from a health standpoint we had lots of folks concerned that they were being exposed to toxic chemicals, that the water was being contaminated, that the air was being polluted. There were lots of strange odors floating around the community which led people to believe they were being exposed to toxic chemicals.”

Another observer noted that Garfield County residents were predisposed to be wary of the effects of drilling, “The other thing that was strikingly different in Garfield County versus Montana and some other places is the ‘split estate’ issue is so big in Garfield County because almost entirely these folks no longer have the mineral rights under their properties and so they didn’t benefit from development.”

The West Divide Seep was a wake-up call that resounded through the halls of local government and across the state. Air quality monitoring and active water sampling programs were put into place. From 2005 to 2009, Garfield County appeared to be willing to take the lead in monitoring public health and environmental impacts of oil & gas drilling.

All-of-the-above back story is germane to the Battement Mesa HIA in order to illustrate that it did not appear out of nowhere. It was not hatched from an egg. The HIA grew organically from years of interaction between local government and citizen groups to address oil & gas issues. Don’t get me wrong. Nobody was singing “Kumbaya,” but there was a general attitude of responsiveness to citizens’ concerns and a willingness to perform perfunctory local regulatory oversight.

Then, out of nowhere, Antero dropped a bombshell on Battlement Mesa.

On May 27, 2009, Antero Resources announced that it would be developing a 10-pad, 200-well project within the confines of the Valley Mesa Planned Unit Development that contains Battlement Mesa. “And that really upset a lot of folks because many of the folks that lived there believed that their land would never be developed, the PUD would never be developed. In fact many times we heard people say that, ‘that was never disclosed,’ or they were told that the mineral rights would never be developed or, you know, one thing or another. So people were very up in arms about it.” The designation of a PUD required a special use permit (SUP) or major land use impact review (MLUIR) to be implemented by the county before the changes could take place, which allowed the county commissioners the legal authority to delay development while the health impact assessment was completed. An author of the HIA noted that “the citizens […] had figured it out that there was this clause in Battlement Mesa and that they were going to push the commissioners on this.

The timing was ripe for a local health impact assessment and Antero’s announcement created a ready-made case study for researchers.

By October 2009, the Battlement Concerned Citizens (BCC), a committee of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA), presented a petition to the Garfield County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) with some 400 signatures of residents from the Battlement Mesa community requesting “to defer any permitting decision related to natural gas exploration and/or production within the Planned Unit Development (PUD) of Battlement Mesa until a thorough study of public health, safety and welfare concerns associated with urban natural gas development has been completed” (GVCA). By November 9, 2009, the BCC provided a follow-up letter detailing specific concerns and requests, particularly the request for “the county and state to conduct a ‘Health Impact Assessment’ (HIA) before a Special Use Permit is approved to any company drilling within the Battlement Mesa PUD” (GVCA, 2010).

The Colorado School of Public Health was selected to conduct the research. After a series of contractual negotiations and stakeholder meetings, the Battlement Mesa HIA began in May 2010.

In September 2010, when the first draft of the HIA was released the news was picked up by local, statewide, and national media outlets because it was the first health impact assessment related to oil & gas development. The whole thing was suddenly blown way out of proportion. Antero objected to the list of recommendations, other operators feared it would pave the way for new regulations, industry groups questioned the data, and elected government officials, including county commissioners, called it “too political.” The COGCC was having a nervous breakdown. In other words, everyone lost their minds.

In the meantime, a battle broke out with Antero on another front. That spring and summer the company drilled four wells on Silt Mesa, a densely-populated rural area less than a mile from Silt city limits. That region was designated for one well per 40 acres. In October, Antero applied to the COGCC for 10-acre well spacing. Silt Mesa and town of Silt residents cried foul. They demanded that county commissioners intervene and request a delay on any action from the COGCC. The commissioners agreed to intervene and negotiations commenced.

In the November election, Trési Houpt, a key supporter of the HIA, lost her county commissioner’s seat to Tom Jankovsky. Along with her seat on the Garfield County BOCC, she had to relinquish her seat on the COGCC.

In February 2011, Antero withdrew their application for increased well density and agreed to negotiate with local communities toward a comprehensive drilling plan. Whilst stakeholders (GVCA, RSPN Alliance, and Antero) hammered out a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and meetings schedule, the simultaneous power struggle over the HIA dragged on.

The year 2011, became the Year of Endless Meetings. I can’t even. Suffice to say that I have meeting phobia as a lingering side effect from that year, like a twitch. The rest is all a blur. If I want to recall anything from that period I have to consult this blog. Burnout is one of those public health impacts — like insanity — not covered in the HIA.

Also that February Antero was knee-deep in a lawsuit settlement over a bungled pipeline installation on the former Regulski property south of Silt. On top of that, the Strudley family on Silt Mesa was alleging well water contamination and sickness from Antero drilling operations. A lawsuit appeared inevitable there, too. Antero was caught up in the spotlight, taking heat from all sides. The situation was seriously out of control. The rest of the story is like a slow-motion train wreck.

On March 1, 2011, the second draft of the HIA was released. Another controversy and media storm exploded.

The HIA report contained an appendix called the “Health Risk Assessment” that proved to be the most controversial aspect of the report. The Health Risk Assessment, among other things, estimated the cancer risks from chemicals used in the energy development process to be 61 cancers per 1 million individuals, and the risk to residents within one-half mile of a well pad to be 93 per 1 million individuals. The report states that these risks substantially exceed the federal government’s target range for risk of 1 cancer per million people in the U.S., but is within the federal government’s generally acceptable range of 1 to 100 in a million.

The draft also included a list of over 70 recommendations which infuriated operators and industry trade groups.

On March 21, Garfield County agreed to give Antero a 30-day extension to review the 500-page HIA draft report. The Strudley lawsuit was filed on March 24, timing not coincidental. On April 22, Antero called off negotiations with community groups about the “Rifle Silt New Castle Community Development Plan.”

Antero was totally cheesed off.

Pressure on the BOCC intensified. Stakeholders retreated to their respective corners and a standoff ensued for the duration of the comment period. On April 27, the public comment period officially closed.

The second comment period solicited a much more scathing and aggressive commentary from industry and environmental groups, as well as threats of legal action. On May 2, 2011, the county commissioners voted unanimously not to extend the contract with CSPH and to conclude all work on the HIA immediately. The reports had been completed, however the abrupt end to the process, and lack of finalization thrusts the legitimacy of the report conclusions into limbo.

Antero never developed their leases under Battlement Mesa. In December 2012, they sold their Piceance Basin assets to Ursa Resources, the company that is now proposing 53 wells on 2 well pads inside the Battlement Mesa PUD.

And so the story continues …

Meanwhile, the methods used in the Battlement Mesa HIA have set the stage for this conversation and for additional monitoring and mitigation processes occurring across the United States. “We published a couple of papers based on our work… [in order to] get it to the broader scientific community. And I stand by our work. I think we’ve had an important national impact clearly because it’s got people talking and thinking about the process.

Nationally, the CSPH’s work on the Battlement Mesa HIA has been recognized in scientific forums related to energy development and public health, and is viewed as an important first step in creating comprehensive HIA analyses. The published academic articles related to the Battlement Mesa HIA are among the most thorough and prominent available on the issue of energy development and public health. While interview subjects indicated that the specific data and recommendations were not transferable, the general scope and methods contained in the report will be useful in designing HIA assessments in other areas. One author noted, “So ultimately I think it was a success, it brought a lot of issues to light but it set the stage for future work.”

Locally, the substantive effects of the Battlement Mesa HIA are much more muted. The Antero project was never pursued, most likely due to economic considerations unrelated to the HIA. Health impacts, in general, have been brought to the forefront of local discussions related to the natural gas development, although the specific reference to the results of the Battlement Mesa HIA are unlikely to be well-received.

Since then the Battlement Mesa HIA has evolved into a valuable research asset. In his report, Dr. Jacquet covers in detail the lessons learned. For this additional important perspective alone, I again urge you to read the 30-page report.

The very existence of the Battlement Mesa HIA proves that residents’ concerns about Ursa’s drilling plans in Battlement Mesa are not based on misinformation and fearmongering. They are “stirred up” from years of experience backed up with scientific research.

The history surrounding the Battlement Mesa HIA provides us with evidence that once upon a time, Garfield County commissioners responded to citizens’ concerns and intervened – no matter how reluctantly – on their behalf. For whatever reasons, that did not sit well with local oil & gas operators and industry trade groups.

Nothing occurs in a vacuum. The Battlement Mesa HIA certainly did not. My purpose here is to flesh out Dr. Jacquet’s report with local color using public records and to the best of my recollection. Others will have different perspectives and opinions. Those were turbulent times in Garfield County. There were ongoing issues with other operators. The county was dealing with the Mamm Creek study, open pits, flaring, and the never ending West Divide Seep. The HIA was a direct result of Antero’s plan to drill in the Battlement Mesa PUD. My focus on that controversy is not meant to diminish any other issues at that time.

Above all, the Battlement Mesa HIA did not cause Antero’s sudden departure from the Piceance Basin. Responsibility for Antero’s actions lies solely with the company.

Lessons from the past still apply today.

For more information:

The Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment
A case study and oral history of process and lessons learned

The Battlement Mesa HIA/EHMS

Colorado School of Public Health:  Human Health Risks Associated with Development of Unconventional Natural Gas Resources

The real Battlement Mesa story

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