Getting a definitive answer as to whether hydraulic fracturing of gas wells, better known these days as fracking, is contaminating the air and the water in Erie is a pretty tall order. For instance, one study says the air is more polluted than Los Angeles’ brown cloud on a smothering summer day, and then the next two reports claim the air is perfectly safe to breathe. It’s understandably a bit confusing for most people.
But for the politically cynical among us, this type of contradiction comes as no surprise. Too often these days, scientific research tends to find whatever the parties paying for the research want it to find, and this is particularly true when there are hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, as is the case with oil and gas extraction. But while the science may be a challenge to interpret, the damage from fracking in Erie is not.
Fracking, more particularly the radically opposing views over fracking and the devastating fear and emotional toll that accompany the controversy, are clearly contaminating the community and polluting the neighborliness of people in Erie as well as other Boulder County communities such as Longmont and even Boulder. On its current trajectory, Erie or any of these towns could be headed down the same path that has thrown other communities from Wyoming to Texas to Pennsylvania into their own versions of a fracking civil war.
Too often these days in Erie, caring smiles have turned into downcast eyes. Friendly waves have become fists in the air. Yard signs once reserved for the casual political endorsement or a garage sale now carry messages like “Keep the frack out of my water” or “Frack no.” Even laughing children have been converted into warriors with painted faces, leading the anti-fracking cheers for protest marches. Erie is embroiled.
Longmont resident Rod Brueske remembers down to the hour when fracking became an issue in his life and the lives of his family members.
“My wife was out here pruning the trees on Jan. 9, probably around 8 in the morning, and there were a bunch of trucks across the street,” Brueske says. “They told us they were building an oil well, and it went up in just a couple of days. It was like an army of trucks. And every time they would start drilling, our entire house would shake.”
Brueske, his wife and their two children live on a farm at the border between Weld County and Boulder County. Within view of his front porch are four different well sites. Go a little farther down the road and there are even more. If you know what they look like, you’ll find that well pads frequently dot the landscape around the border of Boulder and Weld counties.
Oil and gas drilling in the area is not a new thing. Even Brueske admits that there were wells around his house even before he and his family moved in, although he says they were “regular” wells, not fracking wells.
“These regular wells were fine, but once they started fracking, all our problems started,” Brueske says. “I came out here on the night of my son’s sixth birthday, and there was a slight breeze out of the southeast. You know when you touch a nine-volt battery to your tongue and you get that metallic feeling? Well that was how the air tasted that night.”
Brueske immediately called Encana, the gas company with wells around Erie, Longmont and Boulder, as well as the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), to ask what the metallic taste was. He was told that it was probably from benzene, a chemical byproduct of fracking. “And I was scared when they told me that,” Brueske says. “I asked if I should get my family out of here, if that benzene is dangerous, and they said that was up to me. But how am I supposed to know if being exposed to this is really dangerous? This is my family and this is our home. We’re exposed to this every day, inundated with it 24/7, and they won’t even tell me if I should try to get away from it or not.”
One night after the wells across the street from his house went online, Brueske says his son sustained a nosebleed “that just wouldn’t stop,” for no apparent reason. Though he cannot directly correlate the two, Brueske believes that his son’s nosebleed may be related to his exposure to fracking chemicals.
Brueske is not the only one around who believes that fracking might have something to do with family health problems. A group of mothers in Erie formed Erie Rising last year, and have since been loudly outspoken against fracking in Erie and surrounding areas.
Wendy Leonard, who moved to Erie from Virginia two years ago, says that her children have had gastrointestinal issues ever since their move. Her children once attended Red Hawk Elementary School, the school that recently gained media attention as Encana began construction on its Canyon Creek well site, which sits near the school and houses eight natural gas wells. This became the main focus for Erie Rising’s protests, as the group voiced concerns about the safety of children attending a school with a well site so close.
“I just can’t risk my kids going to that school anymore,” Leonard says. “We have no way of knowing if fracking is the problem because they won’t test it. But even if they did test it and found that they were safe right now, what are the long-term effects? What if my kids get cancer because they have been exposed to these chemicals for so long? I’m not willing to wait around to see what happens.”
Leonard and her family have plans to move to Louisville to escape the fracking wells. Thankfully, she and her husband had not yet bought their house in Erie, so they will not have to worry about trying to sell the house before they can move.
“We were waiting to buy a house until we found a place that we wanted to settle,” Leonard says. “And we were ready to settle in Erie. But then this came about, and we decided we couldn’t anymore. I would so much rather stay in Erie, but I can’t risk the health of my kids, and I won’t buy a house in Erie while all this drilling is going on.”
Others, however, have not had such an easy time moving. Leonard’s neighbors also decided to move because of the drilling rigs springing up around them, but were unable to sell their home. They relocated to Niwot, but their Erie home now sits empty, unwanted by the owners and without any prospects for new buyers, Leonard says.
Two of the other Erie Rising mothers, April Beach and Angie Nordstrum, are also looking into moving their families out of Erie at the earliest opportunity. It seems that an exodus of people from Erie might be on the horizon.
But some Erie residents believe that the departure of these outspoken individuals might be just what the town needs. And if there is anyone who knows how things work in Erie, it is Alan Wise. His family has had a home and farm in Erie for more than 140 years, and in his 70 years, Wise has seen many an industry and many a family come and go.
“If you go back far enough, we used to have coal mines here, that’s what started Erie,” Wise says. “And then after that there were oil wells. People want to complain about something. They complained about the oil wells before and now fracking comes along and that’s just another new thing they can jump on.”
After first hearing about fracking last year, Wise began doing some research of his own to see what all the fuss was about. Wise says he found a lot of people loudly speaking out against fracking, but that their concerns were based on feelings and not hard facts.
“It’s a perfectly good way to get natural gas, it seems to me,” Wise says. “I don’t believe that fracking is making people sick. I think that kids can get sick from several different things. There’s lots of kids around and they’re gonna get sick, but it’s more or less a coincidence. I can’t believe that the drilling has anything at all to do with it.”
In the past few months, Wise has seen rising tensions in the community as people become angrier and more divided over the issue. For him though, the solution to the problem is fairly simple.
“It’s been a part of life here forever, and it’s a natural thing,” Wise says. “This is where all the coal and natural gas is, so if you want to be here, you just deal with it. If you don’t like it, move somewhere else.”
There are others in Erie besides Wise who think that all the fuss festering around gas development in the town is causing some of the biggest problems.
“I’m afraid Erie Rising is just going to cost Erie money and not do any good,” says Richard Lesser, an Erie resident for the past 12 years. “There have been local communities that have tried to fight drilling in their neighborhoods without cause, and its cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and in the end they did not win. They did not win because they didn’t have a good case. They just went to court thinking that they could pull something off, that they might get something because of all this community pressure, but the rules in place are sound, and all they did was collect their community’s money.”
As demonstrated by the plight of Pavillion, Wyo., where fracking has been a divisive issue for more than a decade, there are still more problems that can come from the loud nature of the protests in Erie, Lesser says.
“There’s no correlation between property values dropping and nearby drilling,” Lesser says. “However, with lots of headlines about it, and with lots of people pushing out inaccurate information, we could start to see that.”
Lesser echoes Wise’s sentiment that most of the concerns around fracking are unproven and based on fear rather than fact. The leaders of Erie Rising are utterly distraught, he says, and there is no test, no measurement and no facts that will prove to them that the air in Erie is safe to breathe.
“Nothing will convince them that this can be safely done,” Lesser says. “And if that’s the case, then how can you have a discussion with these people? Their minds are made up.”
That their minds are made up is certainly true. Leonard, Brueske and the rest of the Erie Rising members are bound and determined to see fracking removed from their communities. But they would counter the arguments of Lesser and Wise by saying that oil companies should prove fracking is safe before drilling begins, not after.
Because of the conflicting science, the concerns and the arguments on both sides are legitimate and impassioned. But whatever the truth might be about the safety of fracking in the Erie area, one thing is certain: Erie is changing. And if both sides can’t find a way to work together on the fracking issue, then both sides will suffer the same fate, as Erie’s quality of life declines and its economy, including its housing market, are put at risk.
Like it or not, Pandora is out of her box, and it will likely take all of the residents of Erie to put her back in.