Fractured dream

What happens when a fracking operation moves in across the street

Michael de Yoanna

This is what Weld County’s Right to Farm Statement says: “Weld County is one of the most productive agricultural counties in the United States, typically ranking in the top ten counties in the country in total market value of agricultural products sold. The rural areas of Weld County may be open and spacious, but they are intensively used for agriculture. Persons moving into a rural area must recognize and accept there are drawbacks, including conflicts with long-standing agricultural practices and a lower level of services than in town. Along with the drawbacks come the incentives which attract urban dwellers to relocate to rural areas: open views, spaciousness, wildlife, lack of city noise and congestion, and the rural atmosphere and way of life. Without neighboring farms, those features which attract urban dwellers to rural Weld County would quickly be gone forever.”

Those locally-cherished words describe to a T why Eric Ewing moved out of the Denver suburbs eight years ago to his tiny piece of paradise, a home nestled in the vast farmland of eastern Colorado. He’s not a farmer. He’s a stuffed shirt. He moved out here with his wife to raise their two kids on a little less than two acres amid the lazy hayfields, a symphony of birds, meandering cows and a picture-perfect view of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains. When he moved in to his home on County Road 40, east of tiny Gilcrest, he noticed the occasional oil and gas site. Most were relatively small and unobtrusive, sitting in fields. The sites were hazards to watch out for, referenced in the same breath of the Right to Farm Statement as agricultural equipment, irrigation ditches and territorial farm dogs.

Ewing, a human resources worker in Greeley a few miles from his home, never paid those beige-painted tanks and pipes much mind. They were quietly mining the rich oil and gas deposits of the enormous Wattenberg field that spans beneath his house for miles in every direction.

“The oil and gas industry is good for the economy,” Ewing says. “I’m not debating that.”

As a Republican, Ewing supports oil and gas development. But his views on how and where that development should take place have changed as the oil and gas economy has boomed in Colorado. Over the years, the operations around Ewing’s home have grown. The clatter of machinery, hum of engines and smoke spewing from towers are slowly driving his family “kinda crazy every day,” he says. The latest nuisance is right outside his living room window: a hydraulic fracturing operation that’s ramping up operations in the field catty-corner to his home.

In March, when drilling began at the Noble Energy Inc. site, the Ewings were stunned.

“You could feel the pulsating in here,” Ewing’s wife, Cokie, says, motioning with her hands in her living room. “The entire house was shaking — day and night.”

Ewing called Noble Energy, as he has often in recent weeks, to complain. The company knows Ewing well, and has attempted to deal with his concerns at various stages as the site grows. But whatever remedies the company offers, they never seem to be enough. When the drilling was taking place at the site, the company offered to put the Ewing family up in hotel.

“They said they would pay for us to stay in, I think, a Holiday Inn Express in Greeley,” Ewing says. “I had to laugh. That’s where all the oil and gas workers stay, too.”

Though he appreciated the effort, the offer wasn’t enough. What Ewing really wanted was for the drilling to quiet down. So he and his family retreated into their basement, sleeping there as drilling droned on.

“Think about what we were being asked to do,” Ewing says. “We couldn’t pick up our entire life and move away to a hotel while drilling was going on for days. My wife works from home. Everything she needs is in her home office. We have children and pets. Our lives are here.”

Eventually, Ewing turned to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that “promotes the exploration, development and conservation of Colorado’s oil and gas natural resources” while aiming to “prevent and mitigate adverse impacts to public health, safety, welfare and the environment.”

In his complaint, Ewing claimed that for several days the noise emanating from the drilling made it impossible for his family sleep and eat, “causing health and mental stress and anguish.”

On March 31, at 6 a.m., Mike Leonard, a state inspector, came and performed a sound survey at Ewing’s home. “Results indicated that the drilling rig appears to be impacting the residence with noise,” Leonard wrote.

Asked via phone by Boulder Weekly whether a sound violation actually occurred or not, Leonard said the report, referenced online, “is what it is,” adding that the matter is in the “enforcement process,” meaning it could go to a hearing or result in an administrative order, including fines. Leonard was unable to say what the maximum fines might be, but critics have pointed out over the years that COGCC fines tend to be small or nonexistent.

Ewing frets that fines aren’t severe enough to get the industry’s attention.

In February, when Ewing complained to the commission about trash from the site, an inspector found containers had been left uncovered. In that case, the inspector told Noble to cover them in the future.

Sean Casper, lead operations landman for Noble, says the company is aware of Ewing and working with him on such issues.

“We try to be in frequent, close contact with Eric,” Casper says.

The company, he adds, has a mitigation plan for the site with a goal of minimizing the impacts of “dust, traffic, noise, visual impacts and a litany of other things.”

Casper declined further comment, deferring to a public relations expert at Noble. That person could not be reached by deadline.

This kind of trash didn’t used to be on County Road 40. It’s a rutted country road where, in the past, mostly farmers in their pickups and ATVs traveled. Now, with each passing day, Ewing says it feels more like he’s living in the city he left behind.

“All I hear are trucks coming down the road,” he says, pausing as a semi truck rumbles by his home, loose chains clanging on its empty flatbed trailer that’s bouncing along the washboard road, kicking up dust. He watches as its engine growls, leaving a puff of black smoke wafting over his yard. “Like that! It’s like that all day now,” he says just as a dump truck rounds the corner in front of his yard, followed by a black SUV.

Traffic could get worse, he fears. Noble’s site is approved to include a water station with as many as 10 20,000-gallon water tanks to support fracking operations. “Hauling hours (truck trips to and from the facility) shall be 24-hours a day, seven (7) days a week,” state Weld County planning department documents filed in care of A&W Water Service Inc., which is slated to service the site. “The maximum number of trucks utilizing the site is 100 roundtrips per day.”

That’s a staggering number to Ewing. “Onehundred trips!” he says. “Think about that.”

When is rush hour? Will trucks be driving by at 3:30 a.m.? Ewing has so many questions.

“And I’m not getting all the answers yet,” he says. “It seems that they can come whenever they want.”

Based on what he’s seen so far, Ewing isn’t optimistic about what’s to come. The commercials with happy families saying they are glad to see fracking near their homes don’t exactly resonate. He didn’t think an operation would look like this.

“Is a fracking site meant to be this close to a house?” he asks.

When Weld County Commissioners approved the site, they asked for plans to “address the impacts and attempt to ensure compatibility with the surrounding area” including a screening/sound barrier plan. Those measures have come, so far, in the form of tarps supported by poles and bound hay bales, stacked in blocks around part of the site.

The barrier might be helping, Ewing says, but it has done little to make the site less annoying. When drilling took place, for instance, the top of the scaffolding was visible over the top of the tarp.

“It was like the county just handed it over with a few easy expectations,” Ewing says. “I’m left with the day to day. On some days, it’s just me and the land man from Noble looking at each other across the road. And I’m saying, ‘This won’t work’ or ‘That won’t work’ and it’s like they just keep going along with business. I understand it’s millions of dollars to them, but this is my home.”

Weld County Commissioner Douglas Rademacher, who represents District 2 where Ewing lives, is a fourth-generation farmer in the area. He’s also watched the oil and gas industry evolve in the region.

“We’ve had some of the first wells in Weld County drilled on our property so we’ve had to work with the industry for a long time and the working relationship between the industry now versus what it was in the ’70s is night and day,” Rademacher says. “In the ’70s they came in and said where they wanted to drill that well and they drilled it regardless of your backlash or your complaints. They just did what they wanted to do. Today’s operators are much different. They can drill from a corner now and capture all the resources underneath that farm. And I will never take that negotiation away between the landowner and the industry. I don’t want to become a middle man in those negotiations. I don’t think the county — the government has no right be a middle man in there.”

There’s a balance that the county sees, Rademacher says, between those who own mineral rights, farms where operations are located and nearby residents. A lot of that balance has to be struck by the industry, he says. For instance, some fracking operations have more lighting that could be considered a nuisance than others and there’s no standard — not from the state or the industry — to regulate it. So Rademacher looks for good examples and hopes others will follow.

“They’re working all the time to better their industry, their standards and their operations, but obviously we’re still going to have people complain,” he says. “I realize that.”

What does Rademacher do about complaints? 

“I’ll personally go out and look at the site and if the site is doing everything they can to mitigate it, it is what it is,” he says.

But if that’s what it is, it’s not working well for Ewing. He says his conversations with the company have been difficult. He’s not sure who to trust. He’s not sure what to do when problems that are supposedly solved resurface.

It’s not just noise and traffic that Ewing fears. It’s the stuff he can’t see, or, on the other hand, might be seeing in the form of a brownish, yellow haze on the horizon.

“It looks like pollution,” he says. “I just don’t know. I do know that sometimes I can smell a gas odor in the air.”

Ewing has had a scratchy throat often in recent months. He’s felt dizzy after working outside. His daughter has a rash. None of those problems have been linked to pollution in the area, but Ewing is asking his doctor about it.

Studies have associated health-harming air pollutants with oil and gas operations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that emmissions associated with oil and gas drilling in the Weld County town of Erie were causing dangerous increases to ground-level ozone. Those results caused Erie to enact a moratorium on new drilling, triggering a wider battle over the science of pollution measuring. Erie reversed the ban after hiring Pinyon Environmental Inc., a Lakewood company. The company concluded the health effects on lifetime residents would be “low,” stirring controversy.

Ewing knew of another study, one he saw in the headlines. The Colorado School of Public Health found an association between congenital heart defects in babies and the nearby presence of oil and gas operations. Some birth defects, according to the study, are up to 30 percent more common for babies whose mothers lived within 10 miles of natural gas wells.

“That’s what I worry about here,” Ewing says. “As the operations around me grow, I worry about my kids.”

But Larry Wolk, the chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, a state agency, has said the study, based on his agency’s data, was not conclusive.

“Overall, we feel this study highlights interesting areas for further research and investigation, but is not conclusive in itself,” Wolk said in a statement. “We agree there is public concern about the effects of oil and gas operations on health, including birth outcomes. While this paper was an attempt to address those concerns, we disagree with many of the specific associations with the occurrence of birth defects noted within the study. Therefore, a reader of the study could easily be misled to become overly concerned. As Chief Medical Officer, I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at-the-timeof-their-pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect. Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.”

Critics of Wolk have responded by questioning his methods.

To add to the confusion, a bill in the state Legislature aimed to sort out such disputes by requiring an analyses of studies that explore the health effects of oil and gas operations was killed amid heavy opposition lobbying from Noble Energy, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., the Weld County Commissioners and others. Opponents of the legislation argued that studies would be redundant since Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment plays a role in overseeing oil and gas operations.

Ewing says he doesn’t know what to make about the debate. It’s common sense to be cautious when you see pipes burning fuel, exhaust smoke, dust and other pollutants around your house, he says.

“You only live once,” he says. “I know one thing by now: I don’t trust the oil and gas industry to tell me what’s healthy for me and my kids.”

Ewing’s fears multiply when he turns around in his yard. Just south of his house, he points to a large natural gas plant. In the opposite direction, about a quarter mile away, is another drilling operation. About a half mile on the horizon, next to an onion field, there’s another, spewing out gassy vapors that distort the image of Long’s Peak in the distance. Over a ridge, there’s a natural gas compressor station. A lot of this has popped up, or expanded, in recent years.

Ewing has also complained to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission about another site: the DCP Midstream natural gas processing plant that’s behind his house. In a home video, Ewing filmed a flare being burned at the site during the night. It’s light pollution, he says.

“It also scares the bejesus out of my kids ages 3 and 5,” Ewing adds in an inspection complaint. “They scream ‘fire Daddy, fire’ and come running inside.”

Ewing has also filed complaints about noise from that plant, calling it a year-round nuisance.

He says he knows he’s developed a reputation as a grumbler. What does he say to his critics?

“I say to them, ‘How would you feel if you were me and my family?’” 

And Ewing isn’t the only one complaining. In Greeley, parents have fought various proposals by Mineral Resources Inc. to drill up to 67 wells near Frontier Academy school. They’ve won some concessions, but those who want no operations near the school are still fighting.

In Texas, a couple living on a 40-acre ranch in Texas was awarded $3 million by a local court after Aruba Petroleum drilled 22 wells within two miles of their home. The couple, who appeared in the Gasland 2 documentary, claimed that their property values plunged, their health was harmed and their water was contaminated. Aruba, which is appealing the case, has argued its operations were in full compliance with federal and state regulations.

Even as Boulder Weekly was investigated this story, Ewing was contacted by Bradford J. Gilde, the attorney in the Texas case who emailed him the message, “If I can be of assistance to you and your family, please let me know.”

Ewing says he has not yet contacted Gilde, but is considering retaining legal help.

He’s still talking to Noble, though, with senses of guarded optimism and despair. A voicemail from a company employee says operations are on hold.

“I do want to let you know we have put the frack operations on hold kind of indefinitely here so, you know, we’re kind of just sitting tight and trying to work some things on our end operationally, you know, with some mitigation stuff…” the employee said.

Casper, the landman for Noble, confirms that the project has been temporarily halted to work with Ewing.

He hopes they can find a way to coexist in his rural neighborhood, but Ewing is increasingly doubtful there is a way.

Asked about his house, Ewing tries to hold back tears.

“Sorry,” he says. “It’s just that this is my dream.”

And he feels that he is losing his grip on his dream. He wonders if the property value will fall. Ewing doesn’t own the rights to anything of value underground; he can’t turn his home into a fracking site. He jokes that if he did try to sell the place, maybe someone from Noble could move in.

“I could put up one of those signs that says, ‘If you lived here, you’d be home by now,’” he says with a laugh.

Thinking of the prospect of increased traffic at any hour of the day on any day, including the holidays, he wonders who’d be crazy enough to buy.

But for now, moving is not on the table.

“This is my family’s home,” he says. “I’m defending it.”