FRACTURED, Part II: The Making of a Fractivist
The stories of four Coloradans who found themselves in a battle they never expected
Over the past decade, Colorado has grappled with how to balance the enormous economic value of oil and gas production, including tax revenues and jobs, with its unwanted impacts on residential communities and the environment. FRACTURED is a new series by The Colorado Independent that examines the science, politics and humanity of oil and gas development and explores its impacts on Coloradans around the state. –
Other stories in this series include Part I: Who’s behind ‘decline to sign’ efforts?, an examination of the public relations efforts of the oil and gas industry to influence Colorado politics; ; Part III: Why Colorado’s anti-fracking measures didn’t make the ballot; Part IV: Why it took so long to shut down Texas Tea, a look at the state’s inadequate regulatory structure and Part V: Trouble in Triple Creek, which asks: Are new rules to address “neighborhood drilling” being followed?
“Think before you ink.” “Decline to sign.” “This petition kills jobs!”
In the final days before Monday’s deadline to submit signatures on two proposed fracking regulations, the energy industry has ramped up its efforts to keep them from reaching the November ballot. Industry-funded billboards, sign-carriers, radio ads and television spots blasting the initiatives as bad for Colorado seem to be everywhere.
Meanwhile, an army of residents has spread out across the state, making a final push to gather enough signatures to put Initiative 75 and Initiative 78 before voters in the Nov. 8 election. Organizers must deliver nearly 100,000 signatures to the Secretary of State by 3 p.m. Aug. 8 for certification.
Both initiatives take aim at the controversial industrial practice of hydraulic fracturing, which opponents call “fracking” and the industry refers to as “hydraulic stimulation.” The process involves injecting large amounts of water, sand, and a chemical mix deep underground to free up “tight sands” deposits of natural gas.
Initiative 75 would allow local governments to regulate fracking sites in their jurisdiction. The effort is a direct response to a May decision by the Colorado Supreme Court, ruling that voter-approved bans on fracking in Fort Collins and Longmont were unlawful.
Initiative 78 would require the energy industry to institute 2,500-foot setbacks between wellheads and schools, homes, and water sources. Energy companies claim that this restriction would severely impede their ability to work in the state. Proponents say it would protect people from the most direct impacts of gas development.
As Monday’s deadline nears, Colorado has become ground zero for a fight being waged around the world by people opposing fracking for a variety of health and environmental reasons.
Colorado’s energy industry, fronted by groups like “Protect Colorado,” has aggressively tried to preempt a November ballot fight over fracking. As of Aug. 1, the industry had raked in $15 million in contributions to defeat the two initiatives, out-raising supporters of the campaigns by a ratio of 35-to-1.
Whether the measures end up on the ballot – or, for that matter, whether they pass – the current drive marks another chapter in a growing citizen activist movement in Colorado. Some of those involved in gathering signatures are long-time environmental activists whose involvement dates back to the Rocky Flats fights of the early 1980s. Others are veterans of efforts to pass local fracking bans dating back to 2012 and earlier in many Front Range communities.
But many others have joined the fight recently, saying they feel they and their neighbors have been stripped of any say about where the industry can develop. This new iteration of activism is emerging from places where expanding methane production is clashing with expanding residential development.
In many Front Range communities, especially in Weld and Adams counties, proposals for new gas wells are popping up, literally, in the backyards and schoolyards of three-shades-of-beige, covenant-controlled residential housing developments. Despite falling energy prices that have reduced the total number of drilling rigs over the past few years, companies continue to apply for – and receive – new permits in anticipation of price rises. Weld County, the current epicenter of activity in the state, is Colorado’s leading producer. In 2014, it received just over half of the state oil and gas drilling permits. So far in 2016, it has received two thirds.
Residents in Weld County and elsewhere have researched the mounting scientific evidence that document multiple adverse health effects associated with gas drilling around the country, and wonder why these findings aren’t being heeded by regulators. Many say they feel as though their elected representatives have failed them, and wonder why these politicians ignore their constituents’ demands. Then, when energy industry representatives openly brag that they’ve elected “pro-energy”council members in cities such as Denver and Fort Collins, these emerging activists feel sadly vindicated.
What follows are the stories of how four of these newcomers to the issue became “fracktivists.”
Jeanette Pidanick, Republican apostate
A year ago, Jeanette Pidanick was far more concerned with well-baby visits than with well-pad sites. But soon after she and her family moved into the “dream home” they built in a quiet subdivision of Thornton, she found a flier on her doorstop that changed her life. The flier talked about fracking coming soon to their neighborhood. It showed a picture of a drilling rig next to houses that looked like hers, and it gave her pause.
“It just didn’t look right,” she says. “It was so, so, industrial.”
Before that flier hit her doorstep, Pidanick – at that time a life-long Republican and churchgoing mother of three – had never done anything more political than enter a voting booth. Sitting on a blue sofa in her sparsely furnished living room (“I just haven’t had time to decorate”), Pidanick, who’s known as JP, described how she always thought the notion of human-caused climate change was ridiculous. She had subscribed to the Republican orthodoxy on that issue and anything else related to environmental causes.
Still, the flier bugged her, and she started educating herself about this fracking business. In between driving her three kids to play dates and holding down her job as an IT consultant, she started reading up on oil and gas development, following Internet links late into the night.
Suddenly, while driving her kids to school or doing errands near their Adams County home, she started noticing so many more well pads, drilling rigs, and gas sites camouflaged by hay bales and high brown walls.
Then she got wind of a proposed new energy development that would be 505 feet from her children’s elementary school, Silver Creek. And then she got mad. She started to get to know her local politicians (“I hardly knew we had a city council and county commissioners before this.”), attended meetings and examined the impacts of the fracking boom on her community and her family. She read health studies from around the country that showed higher asthma rates near fracking sites, air quality studies that showed higher levels of the carcinogen benzene near fracking sites, and water studies that showed that leaking containment ponds used by energy development companies tainted drinking water sources. Not to mention her growing awareness that climate change science pointed to a growing problem that was bound to mess with her kids’ future.
For Pidanick, who lives in a covenant-controlled community that determines what color she can paint her house, whether she can have a basketball hoop on her garage, or how long she can park a car on the street, it’s galling to know that she can’t have a say in whether or not industrial activity can take place near where she lives and where her children go to school. “We can’t even plant a tree without getting the tree approved,” she says. Pidanick is particularly incensed when she and her fellow moms are portrayed by the oil and gas industry as out-of-state or paid professional signature gatherers, much less “agitators.”
She met other neighborhood moms who were growing concerned and began gathering at ice cream socials and after-school events. Then she started bringing along a clipboard with the #75 and #78 petitions to the events. She started to feel that when she exercised her rights as a citizen to gather signatures for ballot initiatives, she and her fellow moms were being intimidated, both overtly and subtly. A post by a man on Thornton Mayor Heidi Williams’ Facebook page threatened, “you keep this up and you’ll see the evils my mind is capable of.”
Things got even weirder.
At a community ice cream social at Thornton’s Cherrywood Park on July 14, Pidanick and a new friend, Maria Orms, set up a table to invite neighbors to sign the 75 and 78 petitions. Soon after, she recalls, they realized a phalanx of Thornton Police officers was standing behind them. Later, Pidanick heard that the police chief had received a message from the mayor, saying there was going to be a group of extremists at the ice cream social, and requested that the chief send some of his officers. As Pidanick tells it, such heavy police presence seemed like overkill for an ice cream social. She says it was an obvious attempt to intimidate their efforts, and heard afterwards that neighbors who were not involved in the issue but who wanted to sign had felt intimidated as well.
Thornton Police spokesman Officer Matt Barnes says that it is now standard operating procedure for the department to send four officers to any public event like the ice cream social in question, an increase from the past when there were only two. “A sign of the times,” Barnes says. He was unaware of any request for additional officers from any city official.
Whether all these intimidation tactics were real or perceived, Pidanick says she’s not backing off. Among other things, the fracking issue has provided some unexpected benefits. Although many of her old friends at church have declined to sign the petitions and she has lost touch with them, she has felt a sense of purpose and a growing sense of belonging to a larger community: of moms, neighbors, and other folk trying to make democracy work.
“I think that’s the silver lining of this story,” she says.
Pidanick no longer considers herself a Republican, because the party has increasingly asked its members to adhere to an inflexible credo: “You don’t accept climate change. You support oil and gas. You don’t look very fondly of environmentalists and people in that crowd. You don’t cross that line.”
It’s a political agenda she no longer shares.
“We have to keep our children safe,” she says. “I’m not longer willing to stand behind that line.”
Maria Orms: The organizer
For Thornton resident Maria Orms, the call to arms came at the end of an asthma inhaler. Last summer, she found herself having difficulty breathing, even though she’d never suffered from allergies or any trouble with her lungs. She went to her doctor, who gave Orms an asthma inhaler. The doctor told her, “I’m handing these out right and left to everyone.”
Still a little baffled, Orms went home and told her teenaged daughter about the visit. The daughter, who was 17 and an athlete, jumped up. “I need to go right now, too, Mom,” she said. “I’m having the same problems.”
Orms had heard about fracking, even though her own house wasn’t immediately in the crosshairs of new development. She ended up going to a community meeting about a proposed fracking facility in the area, and started learning why others thought it would be a bad idea. One reason is that emissions from fracking wells release a number of chemicals into the air, including things called “ozone precursors” – a phrase that filled her with dread.
She remembered that the previous year, there had been an airplane “zigzagging back and forth over the neighborhood,” and figured out that it was an effort to take air quality measurements. Orms started looking for studies that might have come out of those flights, and learned that they had measured elevated concentrations of chemicals that can accelerate the creation of ground-level ozone, also known as smog. These chemicals, including volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a byproduct of the industrial processes involved in extracting natural gas. On hot summer days, which are getting hotter all the time as the planet warms, the presence of increased ground-level ozone can cause, among other things, what she and her daughter now had: asthma.
Orms was at once scared and energized. She started a community group, North Metro Neighbors for Safe Energy, and emailed an invitation to everybody she thought might be interested. The initial meeting drew about 25 people. It took off from there, surprising Orms as much as anybody.
“I had never done anything like that,” she says, greeting a visitor at her home in a her leafy neighborhood in an older section of Thornton. “I had always been very busy just taking care of my family. My kids were in gymnastics. They were in swimming, volleyball, school activities, things like that.”
Although she had attended some PTA meetings and fundraisers prior to last summer, she “had never done anything political or anything environmental before.”
Orms dug in and started reading scientific studies and researched fracking fights in other communities around the country. Some won, like New York’s statewide fracking ban. But mostly, she heard about defeats, such as in neighboring communities here in Colorado who saw their successful fracking bans overturned by the state Supreme Court earlier this year.
She kept hearing that the industry was too powerful to fight. She started contacting government officials, and heard the same refrain: Everybody was powerless to stop the oil and gas development. “Our city council, our county commissioners, the state, our state representatives, our state senators, they all kept telling me there was nothing they can do.”
“I just decided that it was going to be me that did something,” Orms says.
She started attending meetings, from her city council to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). She said she noticed that when somebody from an energy company would speak, the members of the commission were “very attentive.” But when it came time for a citizen to take the microphone, she said, the members would check their phones, lean back in their chairs and whisper to the person next to them. Orms stood up and gave them hell. “Your job is to regulate this for the health, safety and welfare of the people,” she said. “If you don’t do it, the people will.”
“It horrified me that they were treating people with such disrespect,” Orms says. “They’re painting all the citizens as extremists and the energy companies as just wanting to do us a service.”
Orms takes umbrage at the way she and her fellow activists have been accused by the industry and its proxies of being paid, and worse. “This is our fight,” she says. “We’re moms. You’re harming our children, and we’re not going to let that happen.”
It’s hard to say which part of fracking most troubles her. “It’s the whole thing,” she says, from the impacts on human health to what she calls “the industrialization of a neighborhood.” She doesn’t understand how the state of Colorado has completely ignored the fact that zoning, even in the western United States, is perfectly legal. The implications and impacts of the recent surge in gas production in fast-growing counties up and down the Front Range aren’t being considered.
“How do you un-industrialize a neighborhood?” she asks. “No one’s been able to answer that question.”
Suzanne Cabral: A nurse’s perspective
Third-generation Colorado native and registered nurse Suzanne Cabral never thought of herself as a firebrand. The soft-spoken mother of two and new grandmother considered herself to be a classic homebody, and the idea of approaching strangers to share her concerns about the health impacts of fracking made her nervous. After an unpleasant encounter with a man who had screamed at her about lost jobs and radical petition-gatherers, all her fear and frustration bellowed out. When the man left earshot, she told her petition-gathering partner, “Some people just deserve to have fracking in their backyards.”
Her young counterpart turned to her with a sympathetic voice and said, “Nobody deserves to be fracked.”
That pretty much sums up Cabral’s feelings about the fracking boom, which has exploded all around the Thornton neighborhood where she’s lived for the past 28 years. She recalls her consciousness being raised a year ago, after hearing about a meeting, hosted by an energy company, to discuss proposed oil and gas development near her home. She knew that the development, in Wadley Farms, would affect her neighbors, so she went. It was also one of her favorite places to run, open space where she could gaze to the Indian Peaks and feel like she was in a more rural setting rather than being just 10 miles from Coors Field.
At the first of three meetings, Cabral was taken aback when a woman in the audience respectfully asked representatives of the oil and gas industry about studies she’d read about the health impacts of fracking. The industry representative “totally blew her off,” recalls Cabral, and retorted that there was “no such thing.”
Cabral didn’t buy it. Using a specialized search engine designed for nursing research, Cabral went to work, digging up a slew of peer-reviewed scientific studies from around the country that detailed health impacts for people living near fracking sites: low-birth-weight infants, newborns with neural tube defects, higher cancer risks, skin issues, heart issues, upper respiratory issues, nose bleeds, headaches, sleep disturbances, anxiety, and more. Cabral understands that the industry will challenge that some of these studies do not pinpoint a direct and irrefutable link between fracking and all these illnesses, and she agrees that more information is needed.
In the meantime, however, full-bore energy development continues as epidemiologists try to understand the implications of the clusters of health problems that are being reported around these sites. “We cannot allow people to be used as lab rats,” Cabral says. “If you look at our history with tobacco, how long did it take to come out? If you look at our history with not being preventative and having a wait-and-see attitude, that’s cost a lot of lives and a lot of human suffering.”
As she became more of an expert on these studies, reports and their ramifications, Cabral was asked to speak at city council meetings, county commission meetings, and other public events. “My heart races before I get up there and speak,” she says. “I shake like a leaf, just trying to share this information and trying to appeal to them on a human level, and with the facts.”
She admits that she’s been discouraged when politicians in power seem to be wearing blinders to the information that is readily available to them. “As a nurse, we take on a responsibility to advocate and do what we can — not just for the patient, but also the patient’s family and our communities.”
She’s trying not to think about what would happen if the two ballot initiatives don’t pass. She’s considered moving, but her roots in the community are deep. Her son married a woman in the Air Force, and she has recently been relocated to Colorado Springs from Germany, along with Cabral’s two grandchildren.
“When I just want to throw in the towel, I think about my grandsons,” she says. “If I don’t do it, who’s going to?”
At the end of the day, she says, she feels like she has no choice but to continue the fight. “I’m going to keep getting up,” she says. “I’ll speak, and shake, and feel my heart race. Then I’ll come home and lean on my husband, and do it again.”
Mickey San Miguel: Leaving the industry behind
To get to Mickey San Miguel’s house in Firestone, a booming hamlet on the I-25 corridor about 25 miles north of Denver, you drive through the confusion that is contemporary Colorado. Fields of green mid-July corn wave next to beige industrial methane extraction facilities half-concealed behind walls of hay bales and makeshift barriers. Construction traffic from giant, new tract-home developments vies for space on the two-lane highways with trucks carrying hulking, blue and red containers of fracking fluid. Ten-thousand-square-foot starter castles perch on isolated lots adjacent to horse barns and grazing cattle. Generic chain stores sprout up in strip malls surrounded by oversized asphalt parking lots, and, in the distance, the Continental Divide lords over the viewshed on a clear summer morning, before the afternoon haze obscures the purple mountains.
San Miguel, 29, grew up just down the road in Dacono, a “small little rural town” in Weld County where he knew his neighbors and his best friends lived down the road. There were oil derricks, the old grasshopper kind, scattered around, but mostly it was corn and wheat fields and the chirrup of crickets playing his summer soundtrack.
He went to school, married, had four girls, divorced, moved a few miles north to Firestone and took a job working as a configuration management analyst for a company that made measurement devices, mostly for the oil and gas industry. He repeatedly tried to get his bosses to consider different markets for their products, something besides single-mindedly fueling the energy development he saw was tearing up his childhood neighborhood. They wouldn’t.
So San Miguel made a fateful decision. He quit.
“It was a good paying job,” he says, sitting in his small study with a glass door that barely shielded us from dogs and children who were trying, with modest success, to be quiet in the next room. “I’m now a single father of four girls, so making that decision was huge, man. I thought about it for two weeks, thought long and hard about it.”
He stops, looks like he’s still thinking long and hard about it, with hands clasped and forearm tats pulsing. “Eventually, I think my moral compass ended up winning.”
What finally got to San Miguel was the sheer, overwhelming size and pace of all the gas development surrounding him. According to county statistics, Weld County leads the state in fracking wells, and now has nearly 23,000 active wells and two-thirds of the state’s 2016 applications for new drilling permits. “We can’t seem to get away from them, and what they want to do is continue to frack more, and put more sites all over the place, and bigger ones,” says San Miguel, his voice steady in outrage. “How is that okay? It’s not okay with me.”
One reason why it’s not okay with him is pretty clear when he sees his 12-year-old daughter Alexis come into the room, trailing after one of her little sisters who wants to tell their dad something right now. “My daughter has asthma,” he says, after Alexis shoos her little sister back to the TV. “I don’t know if she has asthma because of the fracking sites that are around here.”
What he does know is that all over the country, there are reports of increased respiratory problems among people living near fracking sites, especially children and the elderly and people with autoimmune disorders. Down the street from San Miguel’s house, there’s a cul de sac, and, not far away, a well site. “You have kids in the neighborhood that are playing in the streets, in the cul-de-sac, riding their bikes, doing whatever, and you literally have, 200, 300 feet away, a fracking site,” he says. “It hits home when it’s in your backyard.”
San Miguel decided that he couldn’t simply stand by and watch. He started gathering signatures for initiatives 75 and 78, started making contact with others intent on making their voices heard. “We are literally grassroots trying to make a difference,” he says, practically growling at my mention of the industry ads painting him and his fellow activists as carpetbaggers and puppets. “We’re trying to show what people power can do.”
He’s not simply trying to stop more development in Weld County. He wants to sound the alarm that there’s a much, much bigger fight that’s being waged. “If, in your neighborhood, your community, state, nation, you decide to stop extracting this stuff from the ground, and keep it in the ground, and move to renewable energy, or even ban fracking,” he says with a verbal punctuation mark, “then I think the people have the right to do that.”
Photos and video © Ted Wood/The Story Group
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