The overseen trailblazers

They cover a nearly playground-sized area, do not need to be more than 500 feet away from your home and they undermine cities and residential areas: fracking sites.

By September 2017, 2479 new drilling permits were issued in Colorado. Most of them in Weld County, also known as America’s most fracked county, according to Daniel Glick, journalist and author of the “Fractured” series in The Colorado Independent.

The latest report of the county’s government states that 23,589 of Colorado’s 54369 active wells are located in Weld County.

The state regulations allow new wells to be drilled as near as 500 feet away from an existing house and 1000 feet from a high occupied building like school buildings. That does not include playgrounds that are on the school’s ground. And it does not include new buildings, which can be as near as 50 feet away from a well pad.

The residents are the ones who have to bear the consequences. Some people don’t realize the potential danger, some hope the best, because they rely on the rather cheap housing prices and some praise the benefits the oil and gas companies bring.

But others raise their voices, like Lowell Lewis from Greeley and Monica Korber from Erie.

„It was the night before Thanksgiving in 2014,” explained Korber, “I am lying in bed, I am hearing this, like, vibration noise that sounded like an old motor of a truck or something, outside my bedroom window.” But she could not find a truck outside. After a couple of days, she found out that these were drilling noises from the rig, which seems to have been put up overnight in her neighborhood.

Since this night, the residents in her neighborhood developed several health issues like headache, nausea, fatigue, said Korber.

Several studies display potential health hazards from unconventional oil and gas extraction. Rebecca Hall, reporter for Health and Recreation, summarized them recently. [Anne Hennig]

“We talked to air quality people,” explained Ted Wood, also journalist and one of Glick’s allies in reporting about fracking in Colorado. “Everybody, from NOAA down to CU or CSU [said] that the VOC’s are the most troublesome, as far as health things go.”

VOC is the abbreviation for Volatile Organic Compounds – carbon-containing chemical compounds that vaporize quickly and are mainly gaseous in nature. Benzene, for example, counts as a VOC.

“There is two big pieces to the VOCs“, explained Glick. One are the immediate health effects of benzene. Benzene are, amongst others, suspected to increase the risk for hematologic cancers like leukemia or other forms of blood cancer, a recently published study showed for rural areas in Colorado.

But immediate health effects are not the only problem, people near fracking sites have.

According to a research paper in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction published in July 2017, “the mental health and psychological well-being of fracking communities, including potential benefits and detriments, are often overlooked.”

The authors found out that besides “some minimal, initial benefits such as land lease income or infrastructure development” individuals experience immense mental health effects. Worries, anxieties and depression about lifestyle, safety, financial security and health in general as well as the continuous exposure to neurotoxins are amongst the named experiences.

“Indeed, entire communities can experience collective trauma as a result of the ‘boom/bust’ cycle,” the researchers wrote.

Despite all the research that clearly shows the negative impacts of oil and gas extraction near neighborhoods, residents like Lewis and Korber are still tilting at windmills.

Lewis told about a meeting, with the oil and gas extraction company that wanted to drill in his neighborhood, the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission and residents. “After a while it became really obvious to us, when we asked questions of extraction, Matt Lepore was giving answers.”

Matt Lepore is the director of COGCC, a state department that’s mission is to “foster the responsible development of Colorado’s oil and gas natural resources.” This, according to COGCC’s guidelines, also includes a responsible exploration of the natural resources “consistent with the protection of public health, safety and welfare.”

At some point, costs came up in the meeting. “We said ‘Oh, so it’s a money issue’. And Matt Lepore jumped in and said – this is almost a direct quote – ‘What you need to understand is that these guys had been spending a lot of money here and they need some return on that investment’,” told Lewis.

“It became totally obvious, we had lost at that point. And so, sure enough, for a few weeks later they gave the approval for this project and a couple of weeks after that Extraction moved outside,” said Lewis.

With the certainty in mind that state departments and city councils would rather side oil and gas extraction, the residents have to team up.

“We are just now starting to really get connected,” explained Korber and refers to East Boulder County United. A group that fights fracking in Boulder County and helps activists to get in touch with each other.

“You can’t expect extraction to do good things for you, but do not expect COGCC to do one thing for you. They will work against you. That is what we are telling ever since,” said Lewis. And he, like Monica, is sharing his story – with concerned residents in other counties, researchers and journalists.

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