Researcher tries to reboot website for drilling concerns

An online tool that lets residents compile and compare concerns about oil and gas development impacts in Colorado and other states has gone off-line for now, but one of its developers is working to revive it.

Sara Wylie, an assistant professor of sociology/anthropology and health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, is seeking funding for a second version of a tool called WellWatch, working in collaboration with the nonprofit groups SkyTruth and FracTracker.

The original version was released in the fall of 2010 for pilot testing primarily in Colorado, because many of the concerns that were logged originated in Garfield County. WellWatch was developed by ExtrAct, an interdisciplinary research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that worked to identify civic problems posed by oil and gas extraction that new media information-sharing tools might address. The ExtrAct idea arose after Wylie worked with The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a Paonia-based nonprofit, to develop a database of hydraulic fracturing chemicals and their health effects.

Wylie reflects on the lessons learned from the first WellWatch program in a recent paper cowritten with fellow Northeastern University assistant professor Len Albright and published in the Journal of Political Ecology. WellWatch let homeowners post health concerns and other experiences, along with photos, videos and other documents, and then map and tag them based on factors such as the companies involved. Wylie and Albright say the site helped people make otherwise difficult-to-identify connections between issues involving the same company in different locations, problems involving an individual well, etc. For people previously dealing with concerns largely in isolation, it provided a means for identifying patterns and emerging problems.

The pilot site received more than 200 reports from Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania and provided data on nearly 1 million wells. But it was shut down in late 2012 after persistent spam attacks caused it to crash and much of its data was lost.

“It is unclear what caused the destruction of the site and whether or not it was purposeful,” Wylie and Albright say in their paper.

They also noted the challenges posed for a platform like WellWatch when researchers involved with it move from one institution to another but funding may not, and suggested WellWatch instead be developed using a nonprofit model or partnership.

The researchers in their paper cited the importance of the role played by community advocates like activist Tara Meixsell of New Castle in working with residents to file WellWatch reports.

Meixsell called the WellWatch data “very valuable and hard-to-get grassroots-level information about what was happening to impacted landowners.”

From Garfield County to the eastern United States to Australia, Meixsell has heard firsthand concerns about illnesses and even deaths people believe have resulted from oil and gas development. She said reports to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission don’t begin to shed light on the magnitude of problems people face, and she also cited a lack of baseline studies to determine health and environmental conditions before drilling so its impacts can be better assessed.

Meixsell also sees a need to “connect the red dots” between what she considers to be the same, completely predictable industry health and environmental impacts wherever drilling occurs.

“Without actively seeking out these stories of really what is happening to these people, nobody knows. This information vanishes,” she said.

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said Colorado’s oil and gas regulations are the nation’s most protective.

Said Ludlam, “Social media and online platforms are wonderful tools for society but not when they simply attract and create echo chambers for people who gravitate toward, or benefit from, taking extreme positions. … Extremism and activism will continue taking on more technological complexity masking itself with a veneer of academic credibility. All we can do in response is maintain a ready willingness to engage and address in a balanced way the real questions average people have about western Colorado’s energy businesses.”


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