GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Close to 100 people jammed into the Garfield County commissioners' meeting room on Tuesday to learn about drilling in the Thompson Divide area, and to object to it.
More than two dozen of those in the room spoke of concerns that largely were centered around possible ill health effects from living in the path of airborne and waterborne pollutants.
"There is a problem with public health that is created by some of these compounds," declared Dr. John Hughes of Basalt, referring to a number of toxic chemical compounds that are known to be linked to gas drilling activities.
Participants also expressed anger that the profits of the oil and gas industry might take precedence over recreational and wildlife values that drew people to move here.
Commissioner John Martin tried to keep speakers on the subject of specific applications for permits to drill, filed by the SG Interests drilling company of Houston, Texas, and away from such issues as health concerns.
But an unnamed member of the crowd shouted at Martin, "That is the issue," meaning the potential health impacts were the reason many of those in the audience came to the meeting.
The 221,500-acre Thompson Divide area stretches from Sunlight Mountain Resort south to McClure Pass, and from the Crystal River west to Divide Creek, taking in eight watersheds and parts of Garfield, Pitkin, Mesa, Delta and Gunnison counties.
It has been the focus of intense controversy for nearly four years, after Houston-based SG Interests announced plans to begin drilling in Thompson Divide.
At the meeting, SG Interests representative Eric Sanford, operations and land manager for the company, confirmed that a total of six "applications for permits to drill," or APDs, have been filed with federal and state authorities concerning five different sites in the Thompson Divide area.
One of the applications, he explained, involves two wells off a single well pad.
He said the company plans to submit up to nine APDs for eight locations in the region. At this point, he added, the only access route to the well sites being considered by SG Interests would run through Glenwood Springs and up Four Mile Road to the area surrounding Sunlight Mountain Resort.
Steve Bennett, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office near Silt, and Jason Gross of the U.S. Forest Service, described federal review processes that will include detailed environmental analysis required by the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
"The NEPA process, I'm guessing, will take at least two years," Bennett told the audience, although David Kubeczko, oil and gas specialist with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) predicted his agency will be done with its review within 75 days or so.
"Our review of permit applications is on a completely separate track from the federal process," said Marc Morton, local government liaison for the COGCC.
The COGCC "more than likely will have an approved permit ahead of the NEPA process," confirmed Kubeczko.
Commissioner Mike Samson asked whether the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) has the authority to prevent the use of Midland Avenue in Glenwood Springs, and Four Mile Road through the county's jurisdiction, from being used as haul routes.
Samson got no clear answer from representatives of the BLM and U.S. Forest Service, but Martin said the county probably could do that if it had an alternate route to offer.
"You cannot land-lock ... these parcels," Martin said, without ending up in a court fight with the energy companies.
The comments from members of the public took nearly two hours, and were all in opposition to any drilling in the Thompson Divide.