Frac’ing discussion gets heated at Garfield County commission meeting
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
A portion of the Garfield County commissioners meeting on Monday was supposed to be a chance for gas drilling critics to refute the claims of a gas industry lobbyist, made earlier this year.
But it turned into a verbal tennis match between the charges of a couple of critics and the rejoinders voiced by an unexpected showing of industry employees, with a bit of heated debate among the county commissioners tossed in for good measure.
The commissioners had made time on the Monday agenda for Tara Meixsell, a New Castle resident who has been writing a book about the effects of the gas-drilling boom on residents of Garfield County, and who assisted with the making of a new movie called “Split Estate” about the same subject.
The movie, a documentary by producer Debra Anderson, focuses primarily on Garfield County and features a number of area residents talking about their experiences over the past several years, as the county became ground zero for a gas drilling boom.
As part of her presentation, Meixsell promised to show it to the commissioners at a future meeting, which will be a public event due to the state’s open meetings laws.
Meixsell also urged the county commissioners to throw their support behind a bill now working its way through the U.S. Congress that would put the process known as hydraulic fracturing (or frac’ing) of gas wells under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, from which it is now exempted. The procedure involves injecting massive volumes of a slurry of water, sand and chemicals into wells, under extremely high pressure, to fracture the strata of sandstone deep underground and free up oil and gas deposits.
The bill, called the FRAC (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) Act, was introduced by U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, both Colorado Democrats, and elected officials from New York state and Pennsylvania, where there also is a growing gas-drilling boom in progress. It would require energy companies to fully disclose the chemicals used in the process.
In quiet tones and at a steady pace, Meixsell told the commissioners that a whistleblower at the EPA had shown his own agency’s findings that frac’ing fluids posed no threat to human health were “scientifically unsound,” but that those findings had been used to discredit critics of the industry in general and frac’ing in particular.
Meixsell also told of several area residents who believe they have been poisoned by frac’ing fluids, including Dee Hoffmeister, who lives south of Silt but could not attend the meeting due to poor health.
Meixsell also told of the Amos family, who “had their water well blow up,” and whose experiences led to a finding that EnCana, one of the biggest gas companies working in this region, had contaminated the groundwater that fed the Amos well.
But the Amos story went underground, Meixsell said, after EnCana bought their property and relocated them to another ranch “far away,” where they are under a confidentiality agreement that can only be broken by a federal subpoena.
Regarding industry claims that there has been no concrete evidence to show that frac’ing is hazardous to human health, Meixsell said, “The industry controls the data,” and when a problem case pops up the company involved settles disputes out of court and clamps confidentiality agreements on the individuals involved.
As for the industry contention that the FRAC Act is unnecessary because state regulations are sufficient to safeguard the public’s health and welfare, Meixsell declared, “To that I say, groundwater flows between states” and the chemicals move with it.
“We need federal help,” she said, because the states are not able to do the job.
Noting that the county has been cooperative and conciliatory with Williams, another giant gas company, in what is known as a “takings” case, Meixsell asked the commissioners, “Is it not the taking of our water and air supply … a ‘takings’ from the citizens?”
After Meixsell’s presentation, local rancher Rick Roles, of Hunter’s Mesa outside of Rifle, told the commissioners that he “became deathly ill” between 2003 and 2005 after gas companies drilled near his home. He said his livestock has either died, gotten sick or been rendered sterile through similar exposure to drilling operations.
A string of others, including Paul Light of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, and Randy Fricke, formerly of the GVCA but now working independently, backed Meixsell up by asking why the gas companies are not held to the same standards as other industries and urging the commissioners to support the FRAC Act.
These presentations were followed by statements from Susan Alvillar of Williams and other industry insiders, who reiterated arguments that there never has been evidence that frac’ing is hazardous to human health, and that state regulations are sufficient to ensure the public’s welfare.
Kathy Hall, a lobbyist for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association office in Grand Junction, mentioned “fear tactics” employed by those supporting the DeGette legislation, and read off a list of supporting organizations and governments backing the industry’s claims.
Afterward, the commissioners had a short but tempestuous disagreement about a draft resolution, submitted by the county’s oil and gas liaison, Judy Jordan. Jordan told the commissioners that the draft was based on wording provided to Jordan by Hall and COGA, at the direction of county manager Ed Green.
“This isn’t consistent with the presentation you gave us previously,” Commissioner Tresi Houpt told Jordan, referring to remarks Jordan made earlier in the summer. Jordan admitted that the presentation Houpt referred to was factual, where the draft she had submitted on Monday “takes a position, because that’s what I was asked to do.”
“We’re not siding with anyone,” rejoined Commissioner John Martin, saying that the county also has received wording submitted by the GVCA.
Commissioner Mike Samson said he is not taking sides, noting that Meixsell appeared at his invitation and that he has recommended that the board view the movie before making a decision on a frac’ing resolution.
“I don’t want this to come back to us,” Houpt shot back, pointing to the draft document, “that this is the recommendation of our staff.”
The board ended its debate with the understanding that any future resolution on frac’ing, and the DeGette bill, will only come about after work sessions and other deliberations.
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