Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community Based Research & Engagement
Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator
Weld County, Colorado, is one of the top producing shale oil and gas regions in the United States, boasting more than 12,000 active horizontal or directional wells, which account for 50% of all horizontal or directional wells in the state. To put this into perspective, the entire state of Pennsylvania has ten times the land area with “only” 9,663 horizontal or directional wells. At the center of Weld County is the city of Greeley, population 92,889. Greeley has experienced dramatic changes in the past decade as extraction companies compete to acquire oil and gas mineral rights. Extensive housing developments on the outskirts of the city are being built to accommodate future well pads on neighboring lots. Meanwhile, a number of massive well pads are proposed within or on the border of city limits.
FracTracker visited Colorado back in November 2015 and met with regional advocacy organizations including Coloradans Against Fracking, Protect our Loveland, Weld Air and Water, and Our Longmont to determine how we could assist with data analysis, mapping, and digital storytelling. FracTracker returned in June 2016 to explore conditions unique to Weld County’s oil and gas fields. During our visit we interviewed residents of Greeley and found that one of their greatest concerns was the dangers of siting oil and gas wells near schools. While there is much more we will be publishing in coming weeks about our visit, this article focuses on one troubling project that would bring gas drilling to within 1,300ft of a public school. The proposal goes before the Weld County Commissioners on Wednesday, June 29th for final approval. As such, we will be brief in pointing out what is at stake in siting industrial oil and gas facilities near schools in Colorado and why residents of Greeley have cause for concern.
Drilling Bella Romero
On June 7th, the Weld County Planning Commission unanimously approved a proposal from Denver-based Extraction Oil & Gas to develop “Vetting 15H”—a 24-head directional well pad in close proximity to Bella Romero Academy, a middle school just outside Greeley city limits. In addition to the 24-head well pad would be a battery of wastewater tanks, separators, and vapor recovery units on an adjacent lot. The permit submitted to the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) also states that six more wells may be drilled on the site in the future.
As was detailed in a recent FracTracker article, Colorado regulations require a minimum setback distance of 500ft from buildings and an additional 350ft from outdoor recreational areas. In more populated areas, or where a well pad would be within 1,000ft of high occupancy buildings, schools, and hospitals, drilling companies must apply for special variances to minimize community impacts. Setbacks are measured from the well head to the nearest wall of the building. For well pads with multiple heads, each well must comply with the respective setback requirements.
Vetting 15H would prove to be one of the larger well pads in the county. And while its well heads remain just beyond the 1,000ft setback requirement from Bella Romero buildings, a significant portion of the school’s ballfields are within 1,000ft of the proposed site. When setbacks for the well pad and the processing facility are taken together—something not explicitly demonstrated in the permit—almost the entirety of school grounds are within 1,000ft and the school itself lies only 1,300ft from the pad. The below figures show the images supplied by Extraction Oil & Gas in their permit as well as a more detailed graphic generated by FracTracker.
Youth: A High Risk Population
The difference between 1,000ft and 1,300ft may be negligible when considering the risks of locating industrial scale oil and gas facilities near populated areas. The COGCC has issued 1,262 regulatory violations to drilling companies since 2010 (Extraction Oil & Gas ranks 51st of 305 operators in the state for number of violations). Some of these violations are for minor infractions such as failing to file proper paperwork. Others are for major incidents; these issues most often occur during the construction phases of drilling, where a number have resulted in explosions and emergency evacuations. Toxic releases of air and water pollution are not uncommon at these sites. In fact, the permit shows drainage and potential spills from the site would flow directly towards Bella Romero school grounds as is shown in the figure below.
A host of recent research suggests that people in close proximity to oil and gas wells experience disproportionate health impacts. Emissions from diesel engine exhaust contribute to excessive levels of particular matter, and fumes from separators generate high levels of volatile organic compounds. These pollutants decrease lung capacity and increase the likelihood of asthma attacks, cardiovascular disease, and cancer (read more on that issue here). Exposure to oil and gas facilities is also linked to skin rashes and nose bleeds.
As we’ve mentioned in our analysis of oil and gas drilling near schools in California, children are more vulnerable to these pollutants. The same amount of contaminants entering a child’s body, as opposed to an adult body, can be far more toxic due to differences in body size and respiratory rates. A child’s developing endocrine system and neural pathways are also more susceptible to chemical interactions. These risks are increased by children’s lifestyles, as they tend to spend more hours playing outdoors than adults and, when at school, the rest of their day is spent at a central location.
At the June 7th public hearing Extraction Oil & Gas noted that they intend to use pipelines instead of trucks to transport water and gas to and from Vetting 15H to reduce possible exposures. But, as residents of Greeley noted of other projects where similar promises were made and later rescinded, this is dependent on additional approvals for pipelines. Extraction Oil & Gas also said they would use electric drilling techniques rather than diesel engines, but this would not eliminate the need for an estimated 22,000 trucking runs over 520 days of construction.
Below is a table from the Vetting 15H permit that shows daily anticipated truck traffic associated with each phase of drilling. The estimated duration and operational hours of each activity are based on only 12 wells since construction is planned in two phases of 12 wells at a time. These numbers do not account for the trucking of water for completions activities, however. The figures could be much higher if pipelines are not approved, as well as if long-term trucking activities needed to maintain the site are included in the estimates.
At the Top of the Most Vulnerable List
Bella Romero Academy has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few schools in Colorado in close proximity to a horizontal or directional well amongst 1,750 public and 90 private schools in the state. Based on our analysis, there are six public schools within 1,000ft of a horizontal or directional well. At 2,500ft we found 39 public schools and five private schools. Bella Romero is presently at the top of the list of all schools when ranked by number of well heads located within a 1,000ft buffer. An 8-head well pad is only 800ft across the street from its front door. If the Vetting 15H 24-head well pad was to be constructed, Bella Romero would be far and above the most vulnerable school within 1,000ft of a well. It would also rank 3rd in the state for well heads located within 2,500ft of a school. The tables below summarize our findings of this proximity analysis.
The following interactive map shows which schools in Colorado are within a range of 2,500ft from a directional and horizontal well. Additional buffer rings show 1,000ft and 500ft buffers for comparison. 1,000ft was selected as this is the minimum distance required by Colorado regulations from densely populated areas and schools without requiring special variances. Environmental advocacy groups are presently working to change this number to 2,500ft. The map is zoomed in to show the area around Bella Romero. Zoom out see additional schools and click on features to see more details. [NOTE: The Colorado school dataset lists Bella Romero Academy as an elementary/middle school. Bella Romero was recently split, with the elementary school moving a few blocks west.]
Drilling near Bella Romero is also arguably an environmental justice issue, as its student population has some of the highest minority rates in the county and are amongst the poorest. According to coloradoschoolgrades.com, Bella Romero is 89% Hispanic or Latino and 3% African American whereas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Greeley as a whole is 59% White and 36% Hispanic or Latino. 92% of Bella Romero’s students are also from low income families. Furthermore, according to the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening Tool, which is used by the agency to assess high risk populations and environments, the community surrounding Bella Romero is within the 90-95% percentile range nationally for linguistically isolated communities.
These statistics are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, oil and gas permitting in Colorado only requires operators to notify residents immediately surrounding proposed well pads. This rule does not include residents who may live further from the site but send their students to schools like Bella Romero. Parents who might comment on the project would need to hear about it from local papers or neighbors, but language barriers can prevent this from occurring. Another factor we witnessed in our June visit to Latino communities in Weld County is that many students have undocumented family members who are hesitant to speak out in public, leaving them with no voice to question risks to their children.
Nevertheless, at the June 7th Planning Commission hearing, Weld County administrators insisted that their decisions would not take race and poverty into consideration, which is a blatant disregard for EPA guidelines in siting industrial development in poor minority communities. Weld County’s Planning Commission claimed that their ruling on the site would be the same regardless of the school’s demographics. By comparison, another proposed Extraction Oil & Gas site that would have brought a 22-head well pad to within 1,000ft of homes in a more well off part of town was denied on a 0-6 vote by the City of Greeley’s Planning Commission earlier this year after nearby residents voiced concerns about the potential impacts. Extraction Oil & Gas appealed the ruling and Greeley City Council passed the proposal in a 5-2 vote pending additional urban mitigation area permit approval. While the Greeley Planning Commission and the Weld County Planning Commission are distinct entities, the contrast of these two decisions should emphasize concerns about fair treatment.
There are very real health concerns associated with siting oil and gas wells near schools. When evaluating this project, county administrators should assess not only the immediate impacts of constructing the well pad but also the long-term effects of allowing an industrial facility to operate so close to a sensitive youth population. There are obvious environmental justice issues at stake, as well. Public institutions have a responsibility to protect marginalized communities such as those who send their children to Bella Romero. Finally, approving the Vetting 15H project would place Bella Romero far at the top of the list for schools in Colorado within 1,000ft of oil and gas wells. School board administrators should be concerned about this activity, as it will undoubtedly put their students’ health and academic performance at risk. We hope that, when the County Commissions review the proposal, these concerns will be taken into account.