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Drilling debate seeping to east

Lynn Burton
Staff Writer

Grass Mesa Ranch residents have watched drilling rigs creep their direction from the west for two years, and some homeowners are now feeling the effects.

A recent incident came at 11:30 p.m. on April 25. That’s when the Rifle Fire Protection District received a call from a resident who smelled natural gas in his house, according to a district report.

The fire district dispatched two trucks and three personnel. When they arrived, the firefighters discovered the gas came from an improperly flared well located near the house.

“Vapors drifted down and entered the residence,” said Rifle Fire District EMT Kevin Alvey.

By the time the emergency responders arrived, the drilling rig operator had stopped the gas flaring operation, and the firefighters couldn’t smell any gas inside the house. There were no injuries.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has issued 45 drilling permits in Garfield County since May 7, and 13 more are pending, according to the commission’s website.

Starting about six years ago, the Parachute and Rulison areas felt the first of the side effects of the natural gas industry’s drilling and production process: noise, dust, heavy truck traffic and open waste pits.

In response to numerous problems, the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance was formed to monitor the natural gas industry, and also to lobby the state legislature to expand the rights of surface owners who don’t own the mineral rights under their property.

Last Tuesday night, the Alliance and the Western Colorado Congress held their first forum to address Silt and Rifle area residents’ concerns.

The Oil and Gas Commission regulates the industry and is charged with protecting public the health, safety and welfare, the commission’s deputy director, Brian Macke, told the standing-room-only crowd Tuesday.

There’s disagreement over how well the commission’s two northwest Colorado field inspectors handle complaints against gas drillers and operators.

“We pride ourselves in responding to complaints,” Macke said. “We’ve worked with surface owners to come up with solutions.”

Peggy Rawlins, a Citizens Alliance member, takes a more cynical view of how the oil and gas commission regulates the industry.

“It’s like the fox guarding the hen house,” Rawlins said after the meeting.

The seven-member commission is comprised of five members with “substantial” experience in the oil and gas industry, said commission hearing manager Tricia Beaver. “The other two must have formal training in agriculture, land reclamation, environmental protection or soil conservation.”

To help the commission’s two northwest field inspectors, the Alliance has called for Garfield County to hire a full-time employee to monitor drilling and related activities, and to help residents with issues they might have with the industry.

Such an employee would have plenty to talk about with Grass Mesa residents.

“Use of the commons area (like roads) is the biggest issue,” said Chartier, who is the Grass Mesa Homeowners Association president.

Grass Mesa Ranch is located on the south side of Interstate 70, between Silt and Rifle, above the Garfield County Airport. Chartier said 40 to 50 homes have been built on 77 lots up to 35 acres in size. Chartier said a gas company working on Grass Mesa owns two lots.

Grass Mesa has 26 miles of private roads. In some places the roads are only about 8 to 10 feet wide, and in others there’s a 17 percent grade. Making their way up and down those roads are semi-trailer trucks with drilling pipe and other equipment. Recently, a truck dumped its load of pipe.

“The road was closed for hours,” Chartier said.

Chartier said a contractor has been building a 22-mile pipeline through Grass Mesa, and that residents have discovered human feces in the area, presumably left behind by workers.

“That was really disturbing,” she said.

There have also been problems when pets go exploring near wells or drilling rigs. Chartier said that a year ago, her black Labrador retriever took a plunge in an unfenced gas well waste pit.

“We washed him 12 times, and it still didn’t get everything out,” said Chartier. Drilling impacts have “definitely been building since then,” she said.

Chartier said everyone on Grass Mesa knew they wouldn’t own the mineral rights under their property when they bought in, and that drilling was a possibility. Still, it’s hard to live with the realities that drilling has produced.

“We used to have huge herds of deer and elk in the pastures,” Chartier said. “I haven’t seen one in two years.”

Although Grass Mesa residents and others have been impacted by gas drilling, Rawlins said the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance has accomplished a lot since forming in 1997.

The Alliance has spoken out at public hearings, urging the natural gas industry to use directional drilling, a method by which several wells are drilled from the same pad, which reduces environmental damage.

The Alliance convinced the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Department of Health to conduct air quality monitoring in the Parachute area.

To help residents contact the different regulatory agencies involved with the oil and gas industry, the Alliance compiled an information sheet that is available by calling Alliance organizer Vicki Meath at 1-970-270-5658.

The group’s biggest goal is to convince the Colorado legislature to change the oil and gas commission’s makeup, so that none of the seven members can be employed in the oil and gas industry.

“We want the legislature to take out that conflict of interest,” Rawlins said.


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