In September 2020, less than six months after Sandra Duggan and her husband moved into their home in a newly built suburb of Erie, Colo., they noticed big grey walls going up at the edge of their neighborhood—the telltale sign that a large oil and gas operation was underway.
Occidental Petroleum had begun developing a series of well pads on a parcel of land just outside Erie limits, a half mile from Duggan’s house. Using a technique called fracking, horizontal drills would shatter rock layers deep underground with high-pressure water, sand and chemicals to release the oil and gas inside.
By April 2021, when the drilling phase began, Duggan’s house shook and a torturous low-grade humming kept her awake at night. Neighbors reported more asthma attacks, coughs, migraines and brain fog—all symptoms of exposure to emissions released by fracking operations.
Duggan and her husband, Eric, had met in Seattle, but decided to move to Colorado to be closer to his family who live in Boulder. Unable to afford the city’s sky-high housing prices, they looked farther afield and settled in Erie, a 30-minute drive northeast. Duggan admits both she and her husband were “painfully ignorant” of what their new, cheaper home would entail.
Towns like Erie can effectively ban oil and gas operations within town limits through strict zoning laws, but that doesn’t prevent a company like Occidental from operating in unincorporated county land right next to residential areas. That’s what happened to the Duggans. Their neighborhood borders Weld County, which has far laxer regulations governing the oil and gas sector compared to nearby Boulder County.
At the state level, regulations are similarly uneven. In 2020, Colorado regulators set new rules (mandated by a 2019 bill) to increase the setback rules for drilling and fracking operations near residential homes from 500 feet to 2,000 feet, but the new law didn’t apply to wells that had already been permitted—a major loophole since oil and gas companies often acquire permits years before they intend to drill.
After months of sleepless nights and thousands of dollars spent on air purifiers for their home, Duggan learned that the wells at the edge of her neighborhood will likely be active for another 20 years.
The Duggans are among the Coloradans unable to afford housing in more affluent areas, where the oil and gas industry is typically more regulated, and who suffer disproportionately from the impacts of oil and gas operations and other heavy industry. Amid growing concerns from residents about the public health toll of drilling, in recent years communities across the Front Range have installed their own air quality monitoring systems in an effort to better understand what’s in the air they breathe and inform regulations that protect public health.
But the individual systems are far from comprehensive, leading to piecemeal data and, in many cases, little to no action on the part of state regulators.
In Weld County, the center of Colorado’s oil and gas industry with 18,000 active wells, county commissioners implemented an air quality monitoring system in 2020 for the county. The system, however, does not measure two volatile organic compounds (harmful chemicals emitted by a variety of indoor and outdoor sources, from cigarette smoke to vehicle emissions to oil and gas operations), methane and benzene, the latter a known carcinogen.
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” said Patricia Garcia-Nelson, who lives in Weld County and works as an advocate with the environmental justice group Green Latinos. “If they’re not measuring these, then from the Weld County perspective, our air is going to look great.”
In 2005, a revamped oil and gas extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” burst onto the scene, reinvigorating the U.S. oil and gas industry by unlocking new sources of fossil fuels. More than 1.7 million wells across the country have been fracked, producing more than seven billion barrels of oil and 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. In that time, a growing body of scientific evidence documenting fracking’s public health toll has also accumulated—a burden born disproportionately by lower-income communities and communities of color.
Compared with traditional drilling, which is only done vertically, fracking is linked to higher levels of exposure to air pollutants and poor water quality, as well as noise and light pollution. In April 2022, Physicians for Social Responsibility, a physicians’ health advocacy group, released a report analyzing the findings from over 2,000 scientific studies and government reports on fracking’s impact on public health and the environment. According to the report, multiple corroborating studies show elevated rates of congenital heart defects, childhood leukemia, asthma and premature births in neighborhoods close to fracking sites.
Colorado is the country’s fifth-largest oil producing state, with almost 90% coming from Weld County alone. Those operations, however, are increasingly running into conflict with the Front Range’s growing population hubs—which already suffer from some of the worst air quality in the nation, with oil and gas exploration accounting for 30-40% of locally produced ozone, a harmful air pollutant.
Absent more stringent state or federal regulations, local governments have taken action on their own in recent years, enacting moratoriums or outright bans on fracking and installing air quality monitoring systems. Erie’s Board of Trustees voted in May 2021 to have private companies install two separate air quality monitoring systems at a cost of roughly $700,000—the fourth Front Range jurisdiction to do so, according to David Frank, who oversees Erie’s air quality monitoring program.
“This is sort of in response to our residents wanting more than what the state has been able to do so far,” said Frank. “We have a hypothesis that there are potentially harmful chemicals being emitted into the air, but that’s a hypothesis,” he said, adding that the goal of the program is to gather data on what’s being emitted and in what concentrations and frequencies, and then try to identify some pollution sources.
In the months since Erie’s air quality monitoring system began collecting data, there have been periodic spikes of benzene, butane and toluene, as well as methane, a major contributor to global warming—including one incident in June 2022 when the monitors recorded a 11,000 parts-per-million methane spike, more than five times the normal atmospheric levels.
According to Frank, officials need more data and analysis to figure out the source of Erie’s methane spikes, but noted that methane is completely non-toxic (it’s explosive at concentrations much higher than what the monitors have detected). More concerning to Frank are the accompanying emissions of volatile organic compounds like benzene, but so far, the results don’t indicate any definitive violations of the state’s air quality standards.
Part of the problem is that neither local governments nor the state know whether the regulations governing emissions as they’re currently written are adequate to protect public health. A big goal of Erie’s air quality monitoring program and the state’s air pollution control division is figuring out whether the laws are adequate, said Frank.
“Where should the line be drawn? It’s not an easy task,” he added.
Frank noted that there’s certainly a source of methane to the south or southwest of the monitoring station at the Erie Community Center, but he cautioned against laying the blame of a spike too heavily on any one industry or source, noting that air quality is a complicated matrix of various industries, tailpipe emissions, topography, climate and weather.
“Erie has a couple hundred active oil wells within its town limits, which is the main concern of residents, but I think people underestimate gas stations and a major regional landfill” as other contributors to poor air quality, said Frank. “So though oil and gas may have precipitated the need for the program, I think it’s broader than that.”
That’s little comfort to Duggan and others living in close proximity to oil and gas operations. Duggan and other residents can now readily cite the growing volume of data documenting the negative public health impacts of drilling activity.
In 2021, the City of Broomfield, less than 10 miles from Erie, surveyed residents living near 84 oil and gas wells in north/central Broomfield and found that respondents living within one mile of a fracking site reported significantly greater frequencies of upper respiratory symptoms and other acute symptoms—including nausea, vomiting and nosebleeds—than respondents living more than two miles from the sites. Respondents living within two miles of a fracking site also reported that their children experienced significantly greater frequencies of lower respiratory, gastrointestinal and acute symptoms than those living greater than two miles from the sites.
Those findings resonate with Patricia Garcia-Nelson. In October 2019, the drilling started at a fracking operation owned by Civitas Resources (formerly Extraction Oil and Gas) less than 700 feet from the playground at her son’s school, Bella Romero Academy, a majority Hispanic school where most kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. (The Colorado Trust produced a video in 2019 that in part highlighted Bella Romero Academy’s proximity to oil and gas development.) Originally, the fracking project was supposed to be behind a different school, Frontier Academy, a charter school that serves mostly white students, but angry parents pushed back and that project was scrapped.
“The demographics were literally black and white,” said Garcia-Nelson, who has fought the project since 2017.
In the months after the drilling began, state air quality monitors detected frequent elevated levels of benzene and other emissions, as well as one benzene spike measuring 14.72 parts per billion, exceeding the federal short-term health impacts guideline of 9 parts per billion. The state determined the benzene likely came from an oil and gas operation, but their investigation couldn’t pinpoint its exact source.
The oil & gas company insisted it was not the cause of the spike, but many parents, said Garcia-Nelson, do not trust their kids are safe. “They believe people don’t care about our kids because they’re Mexican,” she charged.
A later report commissioned by the environmental group 350 Colorado, conducted by Evergreen-based Barrett Engineering, re-analyzed the air quality monitoring data using a more rigorous health-based benzene threshold set by California. It found the benzene levels at Bella Romero exceeded those limits 113 times.
Not only does Garcia-Nelson’s community have a high concentration of nearby fracking sites, but there’s also the cumulative toll of pollution from numerous industrial feedlots, and a large meatpacking plant—a classic case of environmental racism, she added.
In 2021, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) stopped air quality monitoring at Bella Romero after deciding there was no ongoing threat to public health. Earlier this year, a Colorado State University graduate class offered to restart monitoring efforts at the school, a proposal that was backed by CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division. But the Greeley-Evans 6 School District rejected the offer because the new air quality monitoring plan would use different equipment.
“We weren’t sure it would be an apples-to-apples comparison of the data the CDPHE was using,” said Theresa Myers, the school district communications chief.
Garcia-Nelson has led an often-lonely battle against the fracking site near her son’s school. In a community where many people work in the oil and gas industry or live in families with mixed immigration statuses, most are wary of speaking out publicly, she believes.
Still, she is optimistic about the progress she and other activists have made. Earlier this year, a new bill passed mandating that the state establish public reporting and monitoring of toxic emissions from industrial facilities, particularly in disproportionately impacted communities, and then draft regulations to reduce those emissions.
Frank, too, believes the state is starting to step up. “It takes time,” he said. “Ideally, we’d love if the burden of doing this work doesn’t fall to individual communities.”