A problem with the neighbors

Fracking begins on site less than 1,000 feet from occupied homes in Erie

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Sandra Duggan and her husband moved to the Colliers Hill neighborhood in Erie last year. They were looking for an affordable, newly constructed house in a nice, friendly, safe neighborhood, and they found it just east of Boulder County.

Then fracking began on a parcel of land just north of the neighborhood, outside Erie limits, and in Weld County.

“We were woefully uninformed about the culture of oil and gas and all of that,” Duggan says. “When we got here, it was kind of a shock to the system to learn about all the well pads and well sites sprinkled around our neighborhood.”

North of Colliers Hill is the Mae-J site, run by Occidental Petroleum. The plan was for the site to be drilled and for active fracking to commence while homes were still being built on the north end of the development. Delays ensued, caused in part by the pandemic, and it wasn’t until February 2021 — after homes had been built a stone’s throw from the site and people had moved in — that operations began.

Walk along the sidewalk of the neighborhood’s northern edge and you’ll see people out running, kids bouncing on a trampoline, someone washing their car; and right across the street, a massive, active fracking operation.

So now, residents in Colliers Hill are decrying the air quality caused by the operations, the noise and light disturbances at night — one resident reported a massive flare that woke her up — and the lack of accountability some feel toward the Erie Board of Trustees to address their concerns. Duggan says she’s heard residents have endured everything from sore throats to asthma attacks.

A woman named Barb out walking her dog one evening put it succinctly: “It stinks. I wish it was farther away.”

It’s a messy situation, with the Town feeling hamstrung to do anything since active fracking will end in a couple weeks and because the site is outside town limits, and residents feeling like the Town should have done more to protect them, or at least notify them of the site’s daily impacts.

Because so many residents expressed concerns about the operation, the Town of Erie held a listening session in early February. Residents, particularly those in Colliers Hill, raised their concerns,  but Duggan says many were unsatisfied. 

“It’s very easy to say things have been done by the rule of law and this is as far as we can go,” Duggan says, referring to the Town’s point that the site is outside its boundaries. “The town meeting we attended, there were many disgruntled neighbors. The real message we got from the Town of Erie was this sucks but this is out of control. It’s frustrating.”

She’s not the only one who feels that way.

“This situation has honestly been frustrating for me,” says Mayor Jennifer Carroll. “In my ideal world, we don’t have any oil and gas in Erie.”

Carroll says the town wasn’t given “more than a week’s notice” from Occidental that it would begin fracking at the site, and therefore the Town hadn’t reached out to the company it contracts to do air quality monitoring, CGRS. Carroll says when the Town did get word, the Board asked the town administrator to reach out to CGRS to set up monitoring. But the Board “didn’t hear anything for a week and a half,” Carroll says, adding that she assumed “if we hadn’t heard otherwise, it’s happening.”

Well, you know the saying about assumptions. The Board checked with the administrator and found that CGRS wasn’t granted access to the well site property.

Pair all that with the fact that the person in Erie who is designated to respond to oil and gas issues left in December and the Town hasn’t replaced them (plans are now in place to fill the position), and here we are.

Duggan says, by and large, the group of concerned residents — who are planning to demonstrate outside the site on Feb. 27 — recognizes it’s unrealistic to shut the well site down at this point. But they’re asking for air quality monitoring, even this late in the game, so “at least we know when to stay inside,” and they’re asking for “more transparency from the Town of Erie and to be like, ‘Hey, this is a toxic place to live during these times.’”

The town is willing to put air quality monitoring devices on private property, Carroll says, and after initial requests for residents to step forward went unheeded, one resident recently offered their property. And Carroll says instruments were scheduled to be placed there on Feb. 24.

Still, some might say it’s too little, too late — indeed, timing seems to be the worst enemy of those who are now dealing with effects of oil and gas development north of Colliers Hill. Consider, too, that the state Air Quality Control Commission voted last year to require air monitoring at all new well sites, but that doesn’t go into effect until May 1. 

The ongoing debate over mitigating impacts of fracking in Erie is likely to continue. Several years ago, the Town annexed land, on which it has plans for development through a public-private partnership and which is adjacent to an Occidental site. The Town has an agreement with the company to annex the land on those sites into Erie so the Town could benefit from the resulting tax revenue, but if it chooses to pursue that arrangement, they might end up in court with Weld County, and residents may think it’s the history of Colliers Hill repeating itself. 

Aside from the annexed land, Carroll says the Town effectively banned new fracking operations in residential areas by requiring oil and gas operations only in newly created “heavy industrial zones”— now, if an oil and gas company wants to operate in Erie, it would need to successfully rezone its property as heavy industrial, which would require Board approval. But as this case shows, industrial zones can be next to residential zones and, of course, air doesn’t abide by zoning laws or town borders.

For Duggan, and others who moved into the neighborhood recently, there’s a feeling that someone should’ve notified them about the potential for oil and gas impacts so close to their home — she says the Town, at least, didn’t adequately inform her before she and her husband bought their home. And although this most toxic time during active drilling will end in a couple weeks, Duggan can’t help but think about the future and how the community can be better prepared for oil and gas impacts.

“Now we feel a little trapped. We can’t sell right now for obvious reasons; there’s active fracking going on,” she says. “We just bought the house. When we first started looking into this, it was very obvious this was very divisive. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, this was very weird. People were very pro-oil and gas development. The thing we found kind of shocking was this head-in-the-sand mentality of many of our neighbors, until of course they started hearing the noise at night. We’ve had more people speak up. It’s prompted former members of the community to say, ‘We knew about this, sensed the apathy from our community and moved out.’ We don’t want to be neighbors who say, ‘This sucks, and we hope you deal with this [but then move out].”

Carroll says she understands these sentiments. Like Duggan, she came from out-of-state and had to get up to speed on the culture of oil and gas in Colorado.

“I didn’t know anything about oil and gas when I moved here from Ohio,” she says. “I would see something around town; I never would’ve imagined this being in residential neighborhoods. I share that feeling of shock with residents. It almost feels like you’ve been lied to: ‘Here’s this awesome, great community, but here’s this horrible thing and how did I not know about it?’”  

This article was updated to clarify current zoning regulations in Erie. The town has not eliminated any zones; it has required oil and gas companies to go through a process with the Board to rezone property as “heavy industrial.”

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