Tour of valley near Rifle attracts people wary of drilling effects

Thomas Thompson, left, speaks to film crews and concerned citizens during a tour of natural gas development operations near his home southwest of Rifle. A gas pad is behind him. Some of those attending wore respirators after Thompson warned of others becoming ill from fumes on previous tours. Among those on the tour were Demi Garner, center left, and Sarah Hutchinson, center right, who are worried about proposed oil and gas development in the Mesa area, where they live. At right is a man who calls himself Lotus from Colorado Springs.

RIFLE—When Laurel Biedermann heard Garfield County resident Thomas Thompson speak in Denver in November about his experiences living amid oil and gas development, she had to come see it for herself.

Thompson had only three minutes to speak before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission as it began considering new rules addressing setbacks between drilling and homes, and requirements to test nearby groundwater before and after oil and gas development.

“It’s hard to tell 10 years of life experience in three minutes,” Thompson recalled.

Still, he added, “I got this incredible response.”

Biedermann, a Colorado Springs resident concerned about the possibility of drilling occurring there, was aghast about Thompson’s assertions about suffering health effects and property damage and feeling as though no public agencies were looking out for him.

“I couldn’t believe that he couldn’t get any help out here,” she said.

After learning about Thompson from his Denver trip, Biedermann and a number of other Front Range and Mesa County residents took him up on his offer to give them a tour of gas operations in the Porcupine Creek Valley, where he lives southwest of Rifle.

It’s a tour he’s given before. And Thompson said he’s had visitors become sick from fumes and dust related to drilling. This air pollution also has constantly sickened him and his wife, Thompson said.

“My wife and I have woken up hundreds of mornings with nosebleeds,” said Thompson, who describes other symptoms such as headaches and also has lost several pets to cancer.

Such stories from Thompson led some of his recent tour participants to don breathing masks, or respirators.

Ken White of Parachute, owner of Tamerrel Excavation, watched the mask-wearing visitors with a bemused look as he and employee Mike Rebhan worked on a well pad access road during the tour.

“I’ve worked out here (in the gas fields) for eight years now, I’ve lived here for 20. ... I’ve never experienced any problems with (drilling). I’ve never smelled anything bad,” said White, who has a gas pad on the property where he lives.

As Thompson railed on to his visitors about his experiences with drilling and what he considers an inadequate official response, one of the targets of his scorn stood off to one side.

“It’s a tough one,” Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said of the drilling issue.

“Is it desirable to live right next to? No, it’s not,” he said.

But he said the question of whether oil and gas development is unhealthy to nearby residents hasn’t been proven either way. And meanwhile the nation needs domestically produced energy, and the rights of mineral owners also need to be considered, he said.

All of this leaves residents of the Mesa area anxious as Genesis Gas & Oil Colorado LLC proposes drilling five exploratory wells in their area.

Two of the residents, Demi Garner and Sarah Hutchinson, showed up to hear what Thompson and other Garfield County residents are going through.

“It was pretty scary, all the stories they had to tell us,” Garner said. “I really want to believe the oil companies are doing things safely and following regulations and all the things they’re saying they’re doing, but after hearing all of that it sure makes me skeptical.”

Hutchinson said her goal is to become educated and work on mitigating effects from drilling, because she realizes she can’t likely stop it. Preventing air and water pollution are high on her list.

“I don’t live in Los Angeles for a reason,” she said.

Thompson’s issues partly involve Encana USA, which he is battling in court over a well pad access road he alleges was improperly constructed, resulting in flood debris damage to his property.

A lawsuit filed by Thompson also originally raised his health-related concerns, but Encana spokesman Doug Hock noted that Thompson since has dropped those claims.

“We understand people have concerns and these questions come up, and we want good scientific data to answer the questions,” Hock said. “But on the other hand you can’t go around making public policy based on anecdotes and accusations. You’ve got to have a sound scientific basis for public policy and for us in terms of our operations. We realize we have impacts and work hard to minimize them.”

Thompson has said he dropped the health portion of the lawsuit because pursuing it would have been highly expensive.

Wes Wilson, who worked as an environmental engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency, became well-known as a whistleblower who criticized his employer’s 2004 finding that hydraulic fracturing in coal bed methane development poses little or no risk to domestic groundwater.

Now retired, he joined Thompson’s tour and said citizen complaints about health impacts no longer can be passed off as unproven.

He cited two recent scientific reports, by researchers at The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, based in Paonia, and at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado-Denver, that were based on Garfield County data and pointed to potential health risk.

Both of those studies have come under industry criticism.

“I think in both those cases there’s a question of whether they were truly unbiased, scientific studies,” Hock said.

“We’re not giving up on it,” Martin said of the effort to determine whether health dangers from drilling exist. “If there is something there we will find it. It will be mitigated and done away with.”

Such concerns are being aired across Colorado, particularly as drilling edges closer to Front Range communities.

Thompson said any setback rule should consider not just distances between well pads and homes, but the number of wells on a pad.

“You certainly get cumulative effects from these things,” he said.

As Thompson and his visitors continued their conversation in his living room after the recent tour, his wife, Georgianne, talked in the kitchen about how the two of them built their three-story log home by hand. It was their dream retirement home on 40 acres, but then came the drilling, the nosebleeds, the summer air “just heavy with a petrochemical smell,” she said.

Selling the house at a reasonable price doesn’t seem like a possibility for the Thompsons.

“I don’t know. I feel pretty trapped,” Georgianne said. “... It’s just not what we had planned, that’s for sure.”

Lisa Bracken, who lives south of Silt and likewise has been vocal about drilling, said she worries Front Range residents will be the next “toxic refugees.

“The science continues to be buried,” she said.

Thompson’s neighbor, Patty Cline, has been going to physical therapy since a truck involved in moving a drilling rig lost a tire that struck and totaled her vehicle in September. She told Thompson’s visitors her asthmatic son has been sick since moving to her home a year and a half ago.

Rick Roles, who also lives in the Rifle area, told them of suffering chronic illness himself and seeing numerous stillbirths among his goats since drilling occurred near his home.

“Welcome to the industrial wasteland,” he said. “Oh, by the way, coming to a neighborhood near you.”

But White, the excavation company owner, said he’s never had health problems where he lives, even though the pad on his property is right above his water well.

His wife raises alpaca that do just fine, he said.

“We’ve never had anything remotely come up,” he said.

White said traffic can be a problem, but it goes away once the work is done.

White said there was a time when energy companies were “running rampant” and causing more problems, but he thinks companies such as Encana have come far in efforts to reduce impacts.

“They’re trying to be good neighbors,” he said.


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