Weld County residents close to oil, fuel websites severely impacted

Note: This is Part Three in a series about energy-related issues in Weld County. The remaining parts will be published this summer. Read Part One here. For Part Two, click here.

Roughly 50 steps separate the Colliers Hill neighborhood entrance in Erie and a three-pad hydraulic fracturing site. Another few hundred steps separate a site in west Greeley from backyards, something a number of families didn’t expect when they moved in.

Kelsey Barnholt moved to Colliers Hill from Chicago in April 2020. Her husband graduated from the University of Northern Colorado and hails from Denver. They were attracted to the picturesque area and tight-knit community of young families.

Geoff Winterbourne and his family have been Erie residents since 2013, minus a stint in California last year. When his family returned from the Bay Area, the neighborhood’s quiet but central location and landscape attracted them as well.

That’s what they and several other families got until earlier this year when 28 hydraulic fracturing wells moved in across County Road 10.

Occidental Petroleum began developing the three-pad site across from the neighborhood in 2017. The Yellowhammer and Papa Jo pads were supposed to be constructed in 2017, and the Mae J site was planned for 2019, according to a fact sheet.

“It’s not like when you see one of those typical vertical wells with a little grasshopper thing,” Barnholt said. “This is serious; like multiple rows of BTEX burners and things like that.”

Barnholt’s home is about 2,500 feet from the site.

Drilling was initially scheduled for completion by April 2020, roughly when the Barnholts moved in, with fracking completed by March and April of this year. Occidental set site reclamation for October.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved Occidental’s permit for the Mae J site in 2019. It considered structures within 1,500 feet of the proposed pad, but Colliers Hill did not exist when Occidental received its permit.

Then things changed. The price of oil plummeted last year, due to the COVID-19 shutdown and oil price war, postponing further work. A developer built the neighborhood between Occidental receiving the Mae J permit in 2019 and the majority of site construction.

Barnholt, Winterbourne and their neighbors didn’t know about the work until early 2021. Realtors and sellers must tell buyers whether they have mineral rights, but they are under no legal obligation to provide information about oil and gas activity.

“These homes were all put up before the largest part of the infrastructure,” said Winterbourne, whose home is roughly 950 feet from the pads. “A lot of people ask us, ‘Well, did you see the walls?’ or ‘Did you see all of this happening?’ No, because these homes existed before the largest portion of infrastructure was put up. It’s important to underscore that point, because had that already been established, we may have kept looking.”

Not what homebuyers are thinking about

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is the fracturing of underground shale deposits to release oil and gas. This is done through drilling and the use of high-pressure water — often mixed with sand and other chemicals — to move gas or oil to the surface, according to the United States Geological Survey.

The process relies on a number of large engines, trucks and tanks designed to eliminate BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene), which is a group of volatile organic compounds found in the production of oil and gas.

Drilling is the most disruptive part of the process and often lasts three to five days per well.

The neighborhood was first alerted to the additional development when 20-foot sound walls went up in February and trucks began showing up. Residents then began receiving notices about liquid unloading and when fracking would officially begin.

Winterbourne said development information was published somewhere, but it was not readily available nor well communicated.

“The moving process itself is pretty complex. You’ve got a realtor conversation that you’re having. You have lender conversations that you’re having. You’re trying to source the right place for you to build your family,” Winterbourne said. “The last thing most people are thinking about is, ‘What are my mineral rights?’ or ‘Do I have heavy industrial neighbors behind me or not?’”

Families said they experienced light, sound and air pollution during the drilling. Operations shook some of their homes hard enough to knock photos off the walls, and truck traffic woke them up at all hours of the night. Residents like Winterbourne who work remotely had no reprieve.

Since the drilling stopped, they still say they experience negative side effects from the development and believe there must be a better way. The company could have drilled before the neighborhood was put in, or moved the pads further on the property, to get its “financial win” and job creation, Winterbourne said.

The property where the pads are located, according to Occidental’s original fact sheet, shows additional land farther from the homes. Winterbourne said the company could have slightly moved the sites and created more space between the operations and homes.

“Those are the decisions I just don’t understand,” Winterbourne said. “I think that has no impact on people’s jobs if you move it 100 feet to the left or the right. Finding the appropriate location for these operations is what’s lacking.”

ERIE, CO – JUNE 30:An oil & gas site is seen adjacent to a housing development near the intersection of Flora View Drive and Weld County Road 10 in Erie June 30, 2021. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)

‘It doesn’t belong’

A west Greeley neighborhood off 71st Street is home to the Triple Creek development. Conversations about the site began nearly seven years ago, but, for some, it’s still an unwelcome neighbor.

Lowell and Margie Lewis moved to Greeley from Connecticut 35 years ago and have been in their current home for 19 years. They never expected to see an oil and gas drill site a short walk from their porch.

The Lewises got notice of the plans and attended multiple informational meetings, but they don’t feel like it was sufficient nor was it written in a way for people who aren’t in the industry to fully understand.

Extraction Oil and Gas approached residents in fall 2014 with the intent of building a tankless site and relying on pipelines. The company told residents a year later a tankless site would not happen, Lowell Lewis said. By the time construction began, however, the Triple Creek project received necessary permits and regulatory approval to use pipelines.

“We thought it doesn’t belong in the middle of a neighborhood,” Margie Lewis said. “The planning commission felt that it did not belong in the middle of a neighborhood, and they voted it down unanimously. Extraction appealed, of course, to the city government. The city council overrode the planning commission and voted for it.”

Minutes from the Jan. 8, 2016, Greeley Planning Commission meeting indicate that the members voted 0-6 against recommending the project to the Greeley City Council. City Council minutes and a Greeley Tribune report from March 2016 show a 5-2 approval. Former Councilman Randy Sleight at the time called the site “too intense,” but voted for approval because Extraction followed regulations.

Several neighbors appealed to the COGCC to at least designate the site as a large urban mitigation area. The commission approved the request and imposed additional regulations on Extraction.

Still, the Lewises say the neighborhood experienced light, sound and air pollution, including times when the BTEX burners caught fire. A neighbor who lives closer to the site experienced significant sound issues, broken windows and needed door frames reset multiple times, Margie Lewis said.

A drilling site near Bella Romero K-8, also by Extraction, has been shrouded in controversy, receiving positive and highly critical feedback. Some families expressed concern about the health and environment aspect, while employees of the industry supported the site.

Greeley Evans District 6 Chief Communications Officer Theresa Myers said there haven’t been major impacts. District 6 has worked closely with the company and provided input on mitigation measures to protect children and their families, Myers said. Extraction also reduced the number of wells on the site.

“This particular well site has brought a lot of attention to wells going in near schools,” Myers said. “The truth is, there are wells all over Weld County and there are wells all over Greeley. It’s difficult to construct anything without it being close to an oil and gas site, so we continue to monitor that, but it’s just the reality of living in an oil and gas-rich area.”

ERIE, CO – JUNE 30:Air quality monitoring equipment stands at the corner of a yard owned by Geoff Winterbourne at an oil & gas site adjacent to a housing development near the intersection of Flora View Drive and Weld County Road 10 in Erie June 30, 2021. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)

Unknowns leave residents wondering, ‘At what cost?’

Oil and gas development can be messy and risky. The American Petroleum Institute and several production companies acknowledge this fact. There are unknowns with the long-term health and environmental impact.

“I’m OK with data and facts, and if the facts show that everything is safe and there’s no problem and there’s no reason to be worried, I’m OK with that,” Winterbourne said. “The problem is we don’t know what we don’t know. Data-driven decisions for me are what’s important.”

Winterbourne’s home features a CDPHE air quality monitor, which allows the organization to evaluate emissions from the site. He previously had Summa canisters from the town of Erie that were used to calculate VOC levels and types of particulates in the air. Unfortunately, most findings are not readily shared and must be requested through a public records request.

Occidental releases monthly reports, but those are insufficient, the residents believe. They say the reports are often hard to understand, and it’s too late to take any precautions if there was a spill or high levels of VOCs in the air.

An ongoing study from Anschutz Medical Campus at the University of Colorado indicates children ages 5 to 24 who develop acute lymphocytic leukemia are four times more likely to live in an area with a large number of oil and gas developments.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Environmental Protection Agency warn that benzene, a common VOC, can cause drowsiness, dizziness, changes in heart rhythm, headaches, confusion and death when inhaled in at high levels. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene is linked to leukemia, anemia and issues with menstrual cycles.

CU Clinical Assistant Professor Lisa McKenzie, head of the Anschutz study, said in a release benzene has not been specifically linked but also has not been ruled out. McKenzie received a four-year $792,000 grant from the American Cancer Society to continue her research and provide a better understanding of oil and gas development with potential health risks.

“It’s a major stressor. You can’t really look away now that you know what you know,” Barnholt said. “It feels like we’re just setting all these kids up to just have cancer.”

Since the Bella Romero site installation, District 6 health professionals tracked headaches, nose bleeds and other symptoms that could be attributed to the site. It has not found an uptick in these occurrences, Myers said.

There was a scare several years ago regarding high emission levels, but the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment hasn’t found any more instances of dangerous emission levels.

In fact, the site featured CDPHE air quality monitoring tools, but they were removed several months ago. Myers said the tools were not registering any unusual readings and the CDPHE needed the equipment elsewhere.

Margie Lewis said her asthma worsened after work began behind their home. She attributes the increased breathing concerns with the site, which was the only thing that changed for them. Additionally, she said symptoms subside when she is away from the Front Range.

Residents also expressed significant concerns for the environment. Even with technological advances to make the process safer, drilling isn’t a process without risks. Companies still run the risk of leaks, dust and dirt pollution, potential earthquakes when fracking wastewater is re-injected below the surface and water contamination.

“It’s a dirty process. Of course there are going to be some issues from that process,” Margie Lewis said. “How long are we going to have those problems and at what cost? What must we incur to have clean air, clean water and have vehicles on the road? We all like our cars, but we can’t drink dirty water and we can’t drink oil.”

When production is done, proper steps must be taken to prevent gas leaks and explosions as well, Barnholt and the Lewises said.

They cited the 2017 Firestone house explosion that killed two people and injured two more after a natural gas well was turned back on — with a still-connected flowline that was supposed to be cut in 1999.

Weld County produces roughly 87% of the state’s crude oil and 43% of Colorado’s natural gas, according to a report from June 2, providing substantial income. The Lewises and Barnholt, however, aren’t convinced the potential economic benefits outweigh the risks.

“It’s easy to say it creates great jobs and these people bring taxes into the area and the city is growing. That’s all wonderful, but we need to take the long view,” Margie Lewis said. “We’ve made that mistake so many times, not as a country but in the world, taking the short view and dealing with the mess that it creates.”

ERIE, CO – JUNE 30:Air quality monitoring equipment stands at the corner of a yard owned by Geoff Winterbourne at an oil & gas site adjacent to a housing development near the intersection of Flora View Drive and Weld County Road 10 in Erie June 30, 2021. (Alex McIntyre/Staff Photographer)

Developers say transparency is essential

Both production companies say they have been steadfast in following all regulations and being transparent with neighboring property owners.

Occidental finished “completions” at the three pads in late May and have moved to the production phase. Director of Communications and Public Affairs Jennifer Brice said the pads were safe and compliant with all regulations.

“This property had been in our development plans since 2017 before the nearby subdivision was built, and we received state permits in September 2019. While we were hoping to complete the work early last year, the pandemic interrupted the timeline,” Brice said in a statement. “We’ve communicated our plans with the developer, residents, HOA, and homebuilders throughout the process and then directly communicated with residents when drilling operations began in October 2019. As new residents moved in, we reached out again when operations resumed.”

Brice said residents and homeowners associations can contact Occidental’s stakeholder relations team. The company expects to return all calls and emails within 24 hours.

Extraction media representative Brian Cain said the company finished the operations phase at Triple Creek in 2018 and has not received any complaints or critical feedback since then.

Cain said the company worked alongside residents in the neighborhood during the development process, including the Lewis family.

“We engaged in an extremely transparent process that included dozens of conversations and in-person meetings with Mr. Lewis, as well as walking neighboring properties with him and discussing the intricacies of our development plan,” Cain wrote in a statement. “All of this collaborative effort was in addition to the broader neighborhood meetings we held to discuss the project.”

Extraction has demonstrated “again and again” its intention to use the best management practices and technology — oil pipelines, electric rigs and quiet fleets — even when the company is not required to mitigate the impact of developments, according to Cain.

“Since the operations phase concluded, Triple Creek has been producing reliably, quietly generating the energy resources we all use every day,” Cain said.

What do they do next?

These oil and gas sites are not going away and will likely be in place for another several years. Maybe longer. That leaves residents with concerns about their proximity wondering what to do.

Do they move? Do they stay and risk possible health concerns and further development?

Winterbourne doesn’t think it’s feasible for his family to move, so he will probably remain at Colliers Hill. He hopes to work as an intermediary between the industry and his neighbors to work together and figure out a way to make the development process better.

“I recognize that the world is currently dependent on these oil and gas operations, because that’s one major fuel source used throughout large parts of the world. What I see as more of the negative aspect is that it’s so close,” Winterbourne said.

Meanwhile, Barnholt said her family may leave. The family can’t do it any sooner than April 2022 due to financial constraints and tax law, but they’re evaluating the possibility.

Erie has done a good job lately to try and balance homeowner rights and development, Barnholt said. Still, she feels the risk is too high, and she doesn’t want to damage her family’s health.

“I just did this. I just moved across the country,” Barnholt said. “I shouldn’t have to move just because this plan was happening.”

Lastly, the Lewises acknowledge things have been better since the drilling stopped. They don’t expect to move right now, at least not solely because of this, but wish they could do things over again.

“If we’d known how distressing it was going to be and how bad it turned out being, I wish we had,” Margie Lewis said. “Now that it’s quieted down, we’re kind of here. There are other issues living here (in Colorado) like the wildfires, but in retrospect, we should’ve moved. There were several people who did, and they were the smart ones.”