Since 2009, Tod and I have managed the West Elk winter trails system for the White River National Forest-Rifle Ranger District (absolutely fabulous people to work with). And for many more years before that, we were dedicated trail users. There are several scenic views of the Grand Valley along the trails but the popular favorite is Dorothy’s View on Kay’s Loop.
We have no clue who Dorothy was or the story behind the sign on the tree. So we make up our own romantic stories about our patron saint of the trails.
Over the years Dorothy’s View has provided us not only with sensational scenery but also a unique perspective of our airshed in the Grand Valley. Along with the increase in oil & gas development we have witnessed the degradation of our air quality from on high at Dorothy’s View. The West Elk trails are located on the Flat Tops. The elevation is about 9,000 feet, which is above the air pollution. It was frightening and sad to watch.
Here is a series of photos from Dorothy’s View spanning a decade. All the photos were taken by me and were not photo shopped. Unfortunately I couldn’t dig up photos for every year from the same viewpoint on a clear day that were taken by me, but these represent a powerful 10-year retrospective of our air quality.
The first photo was taken on March 25, 2006. I was unable to find stats for active oil & gas wells that year but I’m certain there were fewer than 1,500 active oil & gas wells in Garfield County back then. Notice the actual blue sky, the white puffy clouds, the white snow on the mountains. Observe the depth and clarity of Mt. Sopris and the mountain ranges beyond.
About a year later in 2007, a brown haze had already begun to show. There weren’t a lot of pipelines back then so much of the brown haze in this photo was likely attributable to truck traffic which was extremely heavy in those days as drilling ramped up along with all the tank farms, compressor stations, frackwater ponds, etc., that were being constructed as part of the total operations.
The next two photos taken in 2011 and 2013, should creep you out if you live here. What you are looking at is a methane haze which turns everything blue. Again these photos were NOT photoshopped, as evidenced by the contrast between the aspens in the snow in the foreground and the blue mountains in the background. And in between is the brown cloud we lived in which is a toxic soup of chemicals like BTEXS, H2S, radioactive dust particles, and so much more. The chemicals are located at that elevation because they are heavier than methane.
Again I don’t have stats for the number of active oil & gas wells for those years. But do the math. At the end of 2009, there were about 4,000 active oil & gas wells and everything that goes with drilling, fracking, and production. Now there are about 11,000, so that tells you that during the years 2011 and 2013, oil & gas development was well on the way to nearly tripling.
I’m missing photos from 2014 and 2015, but I can assure you that’s because Dorothy’s View was too depressing to photograph. The brown cloud and the blue methane haze distorted the scenery. I can remember as recently as last winter standing at the view spot with tears steaming down my face. Since 2012, when we drove back down to Silt from the Flat Tops the brown cloud across the Grand Valley was visible as we re-entered it and our eyes burned and our throats ached.
Well, as you may have heard falling oil & gas prices have nearly brought drilling to a screeching halt. Garfield County had 173 well starts last year, compared to 362 in 2014. The last time numbers were lower was 1999. Currently there are 4 drilling rigs operating in Garfield County, down from the peak of 70 rigs back in 2008. There has been no drilling near Silt or New Castle this winter.
Dorothy is showing us a different view this winter.
It ain’t perfect but it’s beginning to look a lot more like 2006. Blue sky. White puffy clouds. White snow on the mountains. More normal depth and clarity of Mt. Sopris and the ranges beyond. Less methane. Less pollution.
These photos are proof of nothing. But they are clear and visible evidence that our air quality is improving.
The brown cloud is fading from our horizon. The air doesn’t stink anymore between Debeque and Silt. Our eyes, ears, nose and throat don’t ache and burn. We don’t wake up in the morning sneezing and gagging. My health is improving. Everyone’s health is improving. We can breathe again. Just look at the photo!
But wait a minute. All that stuff is still out there. Garfield County has over 11,000 active oil & gas wells, and compressor stations, and processing plants, yada-yada-yada …
What’s going on?
It’s simple. The drilling has stopped.
Remember Dr. Theo Colborn. Remember what her study of air quality near oil & gas operations proved and what she taught us in 2012. The highest concentrations and variations of emissions, including methane and other fugitive toxic chemicals, occur during the drilling and fracking stages.
And what those of us who live here are experiencing now is that when the drilling and fracking slows down to current levels, which is hardly any drilling or fracking at all, our air quality begins to improve drastically.
This winter we have experienced fewer air temperature inversions which are caused when the sun warms up the methane saturated air which traps the brown cloud of toxic chemical emissions in the Grand Valley. The few inversions we have experienced so far this winter have not been as severe or lasted as long as those of the previous 3 winters. For example, for the past three winters, 2013-2015, on several occasions too numerous to count the temperature at the West Elk trailhead was 10 to 15 degrees higher than the temperature in the valley because of air temperature inversions. Those were the days we descended into the brown cloud in the late afternoons. We have not experienced those temperature extremes once this winter. When there has been an inversion, the valley has not been consumed by a massive brown cloud, but instead a gray haze is visible. We don’t experience the burning sensation in our eyes, ears, nose, and throat as in recent years.
So, we haven’t solved our air pollution problem by any means. All of those oil & gas facilities filmed in the Garfield County FLIR tour still exist and they are still spewing emissions, including methane and other toxic chemicals. But it’s no coincidence that as drilling and fracking rapidly declined over the past 3 to 6 months, our air quality has improved steadily. It should be obvious to everyone that the intense drilling and fracking operations have been causing the bulk of our air pollution over the past 10 years.
Now that the air has cleared a little I can’t even imagine going back to living in that toxic cloud. As the COGCC and the CDPHE contemplate drilling in Battlement Mesa, and we as Colorado citizens collectively cringe at the prospect of the oil & gas industry’s cost-cutting plans to bring 40% of future drilling and fracking operations into residential subdivisions and communities we ought to heed the message transmitted over a decade by the beloved spirit of Dorothy from our past. Drilling and fracking does not belong near our homes and in our communities. And if we stop the drilling and fracking now – or at the very least slow it down – our environment can continue the gradual process of recovery that has already begun.
As my skis slice through fresh powder on the trail I often hear Dorothy’s voice whispering through the aspen trees, “Keep it in the ground.”