Bruell column: The rivers run through us … Let’s do more to protect them

Debbie Bruell

The rivers winding through the Western Slope are a wonderfully vivid reminder of the interconnectedness of our communities and the common values we share.

From farmers and ranchers, to outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy fishing, hunting, rafting or kayaking, to parents and grandparents concerned about their children’s health, we all share the desire to have abundant clean water running through our rivers and feeding our water tables.

Last year, voters across the Western Slope resoundingly approved ballot measure 7A to protect our local rivers; roughly 75% of Garfield County voters supported the measure. The initiative’s sponsor, Colorado River District, succeeded in communicating that water is the lifeblood of our community and the backbone of our rural economy, and we responded.

Ballot measure 7A addressed many issues, but one pressing threat in particular remains. Currently, our ground and surface waters are at risk of ongoing contamination by thousands of oil and gas wells that are only marginally productive … or not producing at all.

Oil and gas operators are legally required to plug their wells and restore the landscape once wells are no longer deemed productive. The purpose of plugging, which typically involves pumping cement into the well, is to prevent toxic and radioactive chemicals from leaking into ground and surface waters and to halt the release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into our atmosphere.

Nevertheless, there are currently about 25,000 unprofitable wells across Colorado that remain unplugged. Rather than plugging them, oil and gas giants profit by postponing the plugging process and selling off their low producing wells to smaller operators. Once smaller operators are done dredging the last oil from a given well, they can file for bankruptcy and set up shop under a new business name, leaving the well unattended to … and unplugged.

As a result, the government is left holding the ball and paying the bill for these “orphaned” wells, with taxpayers like you and me ultimately bearing the cost. As the rules stand now, it is estimated that Colorado taxpayers could be on the hook for billions of dollars in cleanup costs.

It’s time for us to tell the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the agency regulating oil and gas operators, that this situation is unacceptable. Operators must be required to post bonds to cover the full cost of plugging and cleaning up every well they drill.

Many times in our nation’s past, people have come together to demand that our government step in and protect our precious shared resources. In 1969, people from all walks of life participated in a massive volunteer clean-up effort after 3 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the ocean off the coast of California. A local news editor wrote, “This oil pollution has done something I have never seen before in Santa Barbara — it has united citizens of all political persuasions in a truly nonpartisan cause.” Outraged by the sight of oil-covered birds and dead dolphins, people then mobilized to push the government to pass the National Environmental Policy Act.

That same year, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire as a result of years of industrial pollution. The dumping of toxic factory waste into public waterways was common practice at that time. The alarming sight of a river on fire aroused a widespread outcry, ultimately leading to the passage of the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972. The dumping of industrial waste was outlawed, and our government made protecting our drinking water and aquatic ecosystems a priority.

We all benefit when government officials step up to do what they were elected and appointed to do, to protect the health, safety and welfare of their constituents: families, working people, residents of all stripes. Serving the common good is why we have governments in the first place.

It’s time for our elected officials and regulators to hold accountable the oil and gas corporations doing business in our region, and to prevent them from profiting at the expense of our water, air and health.

This is not a question of whether we should prioritize the economy or the environment. In our local, natural resource-based economy, protecting our environment is fundamental to growing and sustaining a healthy economy. Here on the Western Slope, our lives and our livelihoods depend on access to clean water and air.

Please sign up to provide input at one of COGCC’s weekly meetings and encourage them to require bonding to cover the full cost of plugging and cleaning up every well that is drilled in Colorado ( In addition, please urge the Garfield County commissioners to stop lobbying against these proposed rules.

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale is a former Roaring Fork School District Board of Education member and currently chairs the Garfield County Democrats.

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