Activists criticize well pad location; industry calls tour a stunt
He faces his own health problems, but that’s not Parachute resident Dutch Wierenga’s primary concern about the proposed Lacy Park pad location. Although Wierenga’s front door is about 500 feet from the Battlement Mesa pad, his No. 1 concern is the kids. Grand Valley High School sits several hundred feet above his home.
Western Colorado Congress and Grand Valley Citizens Alliance invited media Tuesday to visit the Wierengas’ home and note the school’s proximity to the proposed natural gas well pad. The organizations seek support both statewide and locally for House Bill 1256, touted as clarifying the minimum distance certain oil and gas facilities must be located from any school.
“Republicans control the Senate, but I think that this really is a nonpartisan issue,” said Emily Hornback, community organizer with Western Colorado Congress. “Most of the folks we talk to in Battlement Mesa are registered Republicans.”
The bill, proposed by Longmont Republican Mike Foote, would ensure that the required 1,000-foot setback is measured from the school’s property line, not the school building.
This change may seem minor, but Hornback said it’s an important detail. It would give outdoor areas like playgrounds and modular classrooms the same protections as the school building.
“The reason why we are concerned is that when kids are outside playing, they are breathing in more from running around and thus their exposure increases,” she said.
Ursa Resources Vice President Don Simpson said that because Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rules would already require state review, he sees no reason to amend current regulations. The current setbacks have already been agreed to by COGCC experts.
Those regulations require oil and gas operations to be at least 500 feet from residences. The tour illustrated that distance for media and gave nearby residents the chance to share their views on nearby oil and gas activity.
“I wasn’t really against the pad if they stayed outside of 500 feet,” Wierenga said. “Now it’s 450 feet to the corner of my house.”
Wierenga worries his pulmonary and cardio problems may be exacerbated by nearby natural gas activity. But he said he’s more concerned about the schoolkids.
“Those kids are just starting out,” he said. “I would really want to see this get set back.”
The proposed Lacy Park pad is outside of the Battlement Mesa residential area and is part of Ursa Resources’ Phase 2 plans, which have not yet been finalized.
Simpson said Ursa is working to revise its development plan and is searching for alternative sites. He added that Ursa has provided onsite visits to the active and proposed sites for Grand Valley School Board members and faculty, as well as Garfield County officials.
“Ursa believes that a safe operation can be conducted at the present site,” Simpson said. “I personally attended an elementary school in the 1960s that was located in an active oil and gas producing field.”
While Hornback praised the company’s community outreach, she doesn’t understand why there wasn’t a meeting for concerned parents or residents to discuss the proposed location.
“It’s not about Ursa or its pad. It’s about the larger picture across Colorado,” Hornback said.
Simpson clarified that Ursa held several public meetings in Battlement and had planned for two public meetings with the school board in September and October. However, since it was early in the site-selection planning process, the school board felt Ursa should postpone a public school board meeting until the company completed its internal planning process.
Hornback said five schools across Colorado are currently dealing with similar proposals, including Grand Valley High School.
“We’re not here to point fingers at Ursa,” she said. “Ursa has done a great job in terms of reducing impact by eliminating pads.”
The tour was met with harsh criticism by industry members.
In a letter, West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association Executive Director David Ludlam criticized the event as political theater. He called it disingenuous, out of context and “meant to politicize a possible future development location.”
He praised Ursa for reaching out to Garfield County School District 16, Garfield County officials and local land-use authorities and wrote, “Western Colorado Congress has a track record of fact bending.”
In response, Hornback said: “You have seen the materials we have distributed on the bill. I don’t think it’s hyperbole. We’re not pointing fingers at Ursa, we are just looking at a bigger problem within the state. If they want to sling mud at us, they can, we’re just working on behalf of normal people.”
Simpson similarly questioned the tour’s motives, pointing out that neither organizations cared about what was at the well pad location when it wasn’t in their best interest.
“We feel that it is curious that neither the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance or the Western Colorado Congress were concerned about the Lacy Park location when there was a drug-infested crack house on the site prior to Ursa purchasing it,” he said. “It was not until it was designated as a potential oil and gas site that safety has become an issue for them.”
Oil and gas provided $60 million to Garfield County schools in 2015, Simpson said.
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