Battlement Mesa Prepares for a Continued Fight for Safer Drilling Practices
When Bonnie Smeltzer moved to Battlement Mesa in 2002 at the age of 74, she looked forward to the wonderful amenities that would come with her new home; the walking paths, golf course, and recreation center with an indoor pool. Battlement Mesa is primarily a retirement community in northwest Colorado, not far from Grand Junction and Colorado National Monument, and was advertised for its beauty and peaceful lifestyle. Bonnie had imagined her retirement being filled with the books she had been longing to read and researching her father’s history. Instead, Bonnie has spent ten years tirelessly fighting the oil and gas industry to protect her health and beloved community.
By 2009, Antero Resources Corporation approached her community to drill twelve wells on twelve different pads. What was originally a small development plan has ballooned to potentially over dozens of wells in and around the community.
The fresh summer air that was once welcomed in through open windows, was now polluted with nauseating odors and noise from the production of these wells. “When Antero started preparing their pad, which is about a half a mile from where I live as the crow flies, there was dust, noise from the trucks and traffic, and all that stuff, just from forming the pad. Then when they started drilling, there were lights, truck traffic, noise, and I began smelling really bad odors during that summer of 2009. I know during July and August, it was extremely bad,” recounted Bonnie. She has kept a log book of odors and her observations of the gas wells near her since 2009.
She began to experience changes in her health, including a nosebleed, the first one of her life, that was so severe she ended up in the emergency room. Similar changes were reflected within other members of her community as well. “I know that people that live in this area have complained of the same things: headache, lightheadedness, eyes burning, eyes are always affected, and respiratory problems. A number of people have had to move away because it has impacted their health,” said Bonnie.
This area is not new to the oil and gas industry. Exxon pulled out May 2, 1982 on what became known as, “Black Sunday.” Exxon laid-off 2,200 workers, and families left the area to find work elsewhere, making housing and the community that Exxon developed, affordable for folks on a fixed retirement income, like Bonnie. Battlement Mesa is not only a retirement community but it is also known as a bedroom community, meaning many of its residents commute to nearby cities for work. “Many people live here because it’s the only affordable place to live in Garfield County. They drive to Grand Junction, Rifle, Glenwood, Vail, and Aspen to work,” explained Bonnie.
“I know that there are many people who are impacted, that don’t take the time, or they don’t know what number they can call, they don’t know a website they can go to, they don’t have a complaint form to fill out, or they’re too busy making a living. They leave, go to work and they come back. And they’re too tired to do anything. All they can do is fix dinner and go to bed and be ready for the next day of work,” said Bonnie.
Battlement Concerned Citizens (BCC), an affiliate of Western Colorado Alliance, formed in 2009 to give those who are impacted by oil and gas a voice against the industry. The group is member-led and focused on pushing for health-based permitting decisions, maintenance of quality of life, and ensuring that citizen voices are heard in drilling decisions. The group is founded on the understanding that if drilling continues to be allowed, citizens need to stand up for public health surrounding the issue.
The health impacts and decreasing quality of life of the citizens lead them to push for stronger regulations for oil and gas development. Proposition 112 in Colorado called for any new oil and natural gas development to be located 2,500 feet (a little less than a half-mile) from occupied structures and areas designated as vulnerable. This type of rule, which limits the minimum distance of development, is known as a setback. Setbacks are usually not based around science and public health but are rather usually determined by trying to please conflicting interests.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment published a study that showed that there is a possibility of increased negative impacts at distances from 300 feet out to 2,000 feet. According to the study, exposure to chemicals used in oil and gas development, such as benzene, may cause short-term negative health impacts including headaches, dizziness, respiratory, skin and eye irritation. The proposed 2,500-foot setback is still not a large enough distance to negate impacts all together but would have been an improvement from the 500-1000-foot rule. “You can still smell an oil pad even if you are a mile away from it, it depends on the wind’s direction,” explained Bonnie.
The areas designated as vulnerable in Proposition 112 included drinking water sources, canals, reservoirs, lakes, rivers, and structures where people live or work. Federal land, which makes up approximately 36 percent of Colorado, was excluded from these rules. The industry fought back against the proposition of the 2,500 foot setback,”they put $10 million into their fighting of Proposition 112. We didn’t have near that much. But they claim it was an overwhelming victory,” said Bonnie.
The proposition was rejected 55.12 percent against 44.88 percent. The opposition was working with over 30 million dollars more than the supporters of the proposition “Unfortunately, money talks and we have three county commissioners who are very, very happy about having gas well exploration in this county because it provides lots of money from the severance tax. And that helps run the government. Of course, I understand all of that. The industry pays really good wages to people,” said Bonnie.
Communities like Battlement Mesa have not been given the choice between development and their health and quality of life. This proposition would have laid the groundwork for meeting in the middle by setting boundaries to protect resident’s health while allowing responsible development and drilling.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) voted to adopt the rule to the current 1,000-foot drilling setback from property lines but not all structures, this rule would apply to schools and childcare facilities and was projected to take effect in early 2019. Many groups believe that this is not enough to protect the citizens and plan to continue to push for stronger setbacks and regulations. Battlement Concerned Citizens have collected hundreds of signatures, filed a lawsuit against Pad A placement, completed the Battlement Mesa health study and have been pressuring the COGCC to follow up on official complaints such as Bonnie’s.
“I just can’t quit. You think well, I filled out my last complaint form, bet I don’t have to do that again. Or I’ve carried my last petition, bet I don’t have to do that again. Or I’ve made my last phone call, I bet I don’t have to do that again. And then you open the door and you smell something,” said Bonnie. “And if you quit? They’ve won. I do think that we have made a difference. And I think it’s probably helping other communities to realize that they have more of a say than they might think.”