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Oil and gas equipment along Weld County Road 10 northwest of the Erie neighborhood of Colliers Hill on Saturday, March 20, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Seattleites Sandra and Eric Duggan bought their house in Colliers Hill, a sprawling suburban development in Erie, sight unseen. Geoff Winterbourne purchased his Erie home while living in the San Francisco Bay area after a tour on FaceTime.

“With the Colorado market the way it is, you only have three or four days to put in an offer,” Sandra Duggan said.

What neither the Duggans nor the Winterbournes could have imagined was that their homes would be next to an oil and gas fracking site, or that Colorado’s new regulations aimed at protecting public health and safety would not apply.

The Occidental Petroleum Corp. fracking operation, along with 200 drilled but uncompleted wells — not to mention the nearly 1,600 drilling permits approved statewide in the 12 months before new rules went into effect on Jan. 15 — are exempt.

And so, while the new regulations require an oil and gas site to be set back at least 2,000 feet from homes, Winterbourne finds his house just 940 feet from the well pad.

“It is an unfortunate situation,” said Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson, deputy director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, a community advocacy group. “There is not a clear mechanism to meaningfully change those permits.”

The problem of the grandfathered permits and wells is compounded by the collision of two of the Front Range’s biggest economic activities: building houses and drilling oil and gas wells.

“This is an issue we are grappling with up and down the Front Range, where rapid urban-suburban development is happening along with rapid oil and gas development,” Forkes-Gudmundson said.

Colliers Hill, 26 miles north of Denver, is a prime example of the building boom. The 983-acre development offers “quick move-in homes” for families at prices ranging from the $400,000s to more than $700,000. There will be 2,800 homes when it is built out.

True to its aim, Colliers Hill is drawing young families and is a land of swing sets and strollers. 

“The problem is, I don’t know whether it is safe for my 3-year-old to play outside,” the 33-year-old Winterbourne said.

In this turmoil, homeowners and home buyers are left with the legal admonition established four centuries ago: “caveat emptor” — let the buyer beware.

“Nothing was disclosed to us verbally,” Sandra Duggan, 31, said. “Stuck in the paperwork was something saying you may not have your mineral rights. We were naïve about what that meant.”

Except for that mineral rights disclosure, there is no legal requirement on a seller or a real estate agent to provide any additional information on oil and gas activity.

And in the case of Colliers Hill, the problem was created not by drilling and fracking coming to a neighborhood, but by a neighborhood coming to the oil and gas operation.

Sound-dampening barriers are intended to protect the Colliers Hill neighborhood in Erie, where sisters Kamryn Barnholt, 4, and Kendal Barnholt, 6, live, from the noise of Occidental Petroleum’s fracking activities on the Mae J, Papa Jo and Yellowhammer sites. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Market collapse delayed fracking

Occidental began drilling on the site in 2017 and received a second permit in 2019. That second permit underwent a heightened review under interim standards of the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission pending the new regulations.

Those standards took into account homes within 1,500 feet of a proposed permit, but at the time the permit was approved, no homes had been built in the area, said Megan Castle, a commission spokeswoman.

The drilling and fracking were set to be completed by 2020. Then the price of oil collapsed, due to a combination of the coronavirus pandemic and an oil price war, and work was delayed.

By this January, oil prices had rebounded and dozens of homes had been built right up to the road separating Colliers Hill from the wells.

The homeowners – who arrived in the last year – started receiving notices from Occidental that the three sites, with a total of 28 wells, were going to be fracked.

Fracking is a process in which fluid and sand are pumped into a well under pressure to fracture shale deposits thousands of feet below the surface and release oil and gas. The process employs batteries of large engines and, according to Occidental, can take up to four days for each well. Once it begins, it goes on round-the-clock.

Brown fabric sound walls, more than 20 feet tall, sprung up around the sites as equipment and large trucks began rumbling in.

Then a steady stream of notices landed in Colliers Hills mailboxes. Notices about when there would be liquid unloadings, when fracking activities would begin.

“The notices don’t make me feel any better,” said Kelsey Barnholt, 34, who moved from the Chicago suburbs a year ago with her husband, Kyle, 35, and their daughters, who are 4 and 6. “But at least I know what is happening and can take precautions.”

Barnholt is training for a marathon and one day ran 20 miles on a treadmill in her basement to avoid poor air quality outside.

Nor were the notices any balm for Winterbourne. “At night time, the level of noise goes up, the lights shine into the bedroom, you hear the engine braking noise, the beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up,” he said.

“You hear it at 11 p.m., 2 a.m., 4 a.m.,” he added. “You can’t sleep because it is coming every couple of hours.”

More of a concern than the noise is the air quality. Winterbourne purchased a real-time, laser  air quality monitor, at a cost of more than $250 and placed it on his back deck, facing the fracking site. The highest spike in particulate matter recorded by the monitor was 273 on the government Air Quality Index, placing it in the “very unhealthy range,” he said.

The town also placed a Summa canister, which collects air samples for laboratory analysis, in Winterbourne’s yard. The canister still is gathering samples at his house.

A Summa canister that collects air samples for laboratory testing is locked to a fence in the Colliers Hill neighborhood facing an Occidental Petroleum fracking site that was permitted long before homes were built. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Chemical odors wafted through the neighborhood and people started sharing stories of nosebleeds, asthma attacks, headaches and dizziness. “But the burden of proof was on the community,” Duggan said.

Richmond American Homes, which built the part of Colliers Hill where Winterbourne lives, said in an email that it did not comment “on individual hometown circumstances.”

Colliers Hill residents started showing up at meetings of the Erie Board of Trustees, the community’s town council, demanding action. They filed complaints with the COGCC.

But Erie Mayor Jennifer Carroll told them that there was little the town could do, even though it had adopted its own stringent oil and gas rules, because the road separating Colliers Hills from the wells was also the boundary between Erie and unincorporated and pro-oil development Weld County.

Speaking to the oil and gas commission on March 10, Carroll said, “I implore you to help Erie residents by providing air quality and noise monitoring.” Despite Erie’s new regulations, Carroll said, “where we fall short as a town is when operations go just outside our borders … our hands are tied.”

Carroll told the commission that noise from the fracking operation could be heard in downtown Erie.

In response to complaints, the COGCC sent out inspectors. “They don’t come out ‘til the next day,” Barnholt said. “You could have a 15-minute spike and then it’s gone. They never find anything. That’s why we need continuous air quality monitoring and more timely inspections.”

The Occidental project did  go through both county and state reviews before being permitted, said Jason Maxey, director of the Weld County Oil and Gas Energy Department.

Maxey, who participated in a video meeting with Colliers Hill residents, said the county is notifying Occidental of all complaints it receives and is sharing information with Erie officials. The parcel across the road from Colliers Hills has been the site of oil and gas operations going back to the 1970s, he said.

The residents, loosely organized as the Colliers Hill O&G Group, are pressing the town to hire Boulder A.I.R., which is conducting real-time air quality monitoring for Boulder County, Broomfield and Longmont.

Castle said the commission has 30 inspectors who must cover 52,000 wells across the state and that the agency can’t do better than getting an inspector to a site within 24 hours.

The commission did set up its own noise monitors for a few days at the Occidental site and reviewed the air emission logs kept by Occidental.

“It did disrupt their lives, but what we have to determine is if they were above the allowable limits,” Mike Leonard, COGCC head of compliance, told the commission.

The verdict was that the Occidental operations were complying with all the requirements in its permit.

Pedestrians walk past natural gas pipeline infrastructure in Serene Park in the Colliers Hill neighborhood of Erie on Saturday, March 20, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Occidental said in a statement that it is doing continuous noise and air monitoring, as well as using a quiet frack fleet and enclosed tanks to minimize emissions. The sound walls are double-layered closest to the neighborhood.

“We’ve communicated our plans with the developer, residents, HOA, and homebuilders throughout the process and most recently directly communicated with residents when drilling operations began,” Jennifer Brice, an Occidental spokeswoman, said in an email. “As new residents moved in, we reached out again when operations continued.”

Limiting operations to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., another proposal suggested by Erie, would require shutting down a highly pressurized well and then starting it up again 12 hours later, presenting safety hazards that could put workers at risk, and could double the time the company is in the area, the company said. 

LOGIC’s Forkes-Gudmundson said that in cases of grandfathered wells, communities will have to “rely on the good heart of the operators, because these permits have been approved.”

“It puts the operator in a bad place, the COGCC in a bad place and residents in a horrible place because they didn’t know this was going to happen,” he said.

The fact that Occidental is complying with its permit is little comfort to the residents. “As the father of two young daughters, what is frustrating is that no one is taking responsibility,” said Kyle Barnholt.

Sandra Duggan said she and her husband Eric, 31, are hoping to have a baby through in vitro fertilization, but have delayed the procedure. “With IVF you want to create a safe, stress-free space,” Duggan said. “I worry about side effects correlated with early pregnancy and fracking emissions.”

“Colorado is billed as this outdoor state with a great environment,” she said. “We didn’t realize we were moving to a petro-state.”

Meanwhile, building continues apace at Colliers Hill. “Between my home and those homes nearest the frack site, they are filling in the land with more homes,” Kelsey Barnholt said.

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe