Activists sound alarm over oil waste pit in Lafayette

A well to the east of the waste pit
Photo by Cliff Willmeng

In February 1984, a woman living in the Lafayette area called police to report that her cat had fallen into an oil sludge pit.

The pit was used for depositing waste material from nearby oil and gas wells, and the cat had returned home covered in an oily substance.

The woman ended up taking her cat to a veterinarian, who diagnosed it with liver damage. She told officers that the cat was not expected to survive.

According to a Boulder County Sheriff ’s Office report dated Feb. 15, five days after the cat incident, subsequent interviews with the operator of the pit and a local health official revealed that the pit was filled with water, oil and paraffin, a toxic brew that the investigating officer was told should be considered “dangerous.” Police suggested erecting temporary fencing and more frequent patrols in the area to keep children and animals away from the pit. The report includes the health official’s observation that “the federal government has placed few restrictions on the processes of oil and natural gas in this matter.”

Records indicate that the toxic material was pumped out two days later, and that the pit was backfilled.

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Fast-forward nearly 30 years, and anti-fracking activists are now raising red flags about the ongoing construction of a Lafayette housing development where that toxic waste pit was located. Those types of pits were rarely lined in those days, raising the possibility that the waste might have soaked down to groundwater or had other lasting effects.

Three activists sent a letter to the Lafayette City Council on March 25, requesting that all construction at the Silver Creek housing development be ceased “until it can be empirically determined through proven third-party scientific testing to be free of toxic materials.”

The letter, signed by Shane Davis of, Cliff Willmeng of East Boulder County United and Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action, notes that Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) records indicate that there has been no soil sampling around the site of the pit to test for any lingering contamination.

City officials responded with their own memo to city council on April 2, describing how all processes had been followed correctly during the approval of the new housing development. Phillip Patterson, assistant city administrator and community development director, wrote that an aerial photo indicates that the pit, located across the street from the Immaculate Conception Church, was between 500 and 1,000 square feet in size. He outlined information provided by the COGCC, acknowledging that the pits commonly used in the 1980s to store drilling mud were generally not lined.

But Patterson said the city’s subdivision regulations do not require an environmental hazards study to be submitted as part of the application process, and at the time that the Silver Creek development was proposed, “there was no indication of any specific environmental hazards as it relates to the gas/oil wells.”

Still, the city does require a 350-foot buffer between any well and a residential or commercial lot line. But when Silver Creek was approved by the city in 2007, plans allowed for future development within that 350 feet as long as two wells on the property were capped. The pit in question is near the well on the west side of the parcel, and according to Patterson’s letter, the Silver Creek plan was amended last year to reinstate the 350-foot buffer for that western well, prohibiting future development on the site of the pit.

“If staff had known of a potential environmental hazard related to the gas/oil well,” he wrote, “[it is] possible that additional studies would have been required at the time the Cabrini Gardens and Silver Creek subdivisions were being reviewed.”

And in response to a question in the activists’ letter asking if there are any other risks from past oil/gas operations within city limits, Patterson said, “This request is too broad for staff to attempt to answer. Based on the information received from the COGCC, it is possible that any gas/ oil well drilled in Lafayette might have had a drilling pit associated with the well.”

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The fractivists were not satisfied with the city’s response. They say a 350-foot setback is not nearly adequate, considering the May study by a University of Colorado researcher at the Colorado School of Public Health that found elevated risks of cancer and other health problems among people living within a half-mile of oil/gas wells.

In a second letter sent to council Monday, Davis, Willmeng and Wockner request that soil testing be done in the area and that the developer and residents be notified of the documentation of the pit that has been unearthed so far. They also call on the city to conduct a full assessment of cur rent or abandoned wells and pits within city limits to identify possible health threats.

In addition, the activists suggest that the city’s planning and zoning commission “may not be conducting adequate due diligence for the future residents of Lafayette,” and they recommend that the commission be required to investigate prior oil and gas operations, waste disposal methods and spills prior to approving new residential developments for any given area.

Davis told BW that the city’s defense about not knowing about any environmental threats at the time Silver Creek was approved is no excuse to not act now. As new knowledge emerges, public officials have an obligation to address problems.

“We thought asbestos was OK in 1984 too,” Davis says.

He adds that Lafayette’s existing regulations on things like setbacks from wells fly in the face of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s argument that such requirements should be set at the state level to avoid a hodgepodge of widely varying local controls.

“The governor is full of shit when he says we don’t want a hodgepodge,” he says. “It already exists.”

Willmeng says in an interview that city officials seem to be going out of their way to demonstrate they broke no laws, but he explains that the activists are not claiming that any laws were broken — they just want action to protect public health and safety.

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Debbie Wilmot, public information officer for the city of Lafayette, told BW that the situation has prompted city officials to begin requiring more environmental studies for developments planned near wells. She acknowledged that this shift has not been added to policy, however, and that it will be up to Patterson’s discretion.

She says she’s not aware of any plans to take a comprehensive look at other wells within city limits or their possible impacts.

“I’m not sure how we would do that,” Wilmot says.

But she adds that no new well has been drilled in Lafayette in two decades, and if a company came in and wanted to operate an old well, it would have to be approved by the planning and zoning commission and would have to adhere to the 350-foot buffer.

Wilmot added that she doesn’t expect an increase in drilling activity in Lafayette in the next few years, even though most of the city sits on top of the Wattenberg Field. She also says the city’s 350-foot buffer is more stringent than the state’s setbacks, because it applies to all residential and commercial lot lines. (The COGCC recently approved new setbacks of 500 feet from a variety of occupied structures, not all residential and commercial lot lines.)

When asked why the 350-foot setback was being enforced for the western well but not the eastern one, Wilmot says it had nothing to do with concerns about the pit, it was due to the Silver Creek developer opting against building the planned townhomes in that area because of a downturn in the market for townhome sales. Instead, the developer wanted to build single-family homes, Wilmot says, but the city planning department wants higher-density housing there to serve as an “insulator” between the subdivision and commercial development to the west. And since the well is not expected to be capped any time soon, the developer decided to just leave that area open for now and see what the market will bear in the future, according to Wilmot.