State oil and gas chief: Battlement Mesa drilling health study not pressing

The head of the state agency that oversees oil and gas drilling in Colorado says it’s too early to commit to a baseline health study in a Western Slope community wary of plans to site up to 200 natural gas wells near homes and on its municipal golf course.

Members of Battlement Concerned Citizens (BCC) want a Health Impact Assessment conducted before state or local approval of an Antero Resources plan to put 10 well pads and up to 200 gas wells in the Garfield County community of Battlement Mesa, home to more than 5,000 people.

In the neighborhood: A resident oil well in Hobbs, N.M. (TexasMary, Flickr)
In the neighborhood: A resident oil well in Hobbs, N.M. (TexasMary, Flickr)

“It’s still, from our standpoint, very early in the process,” said Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) executive director David Neslin. “The process actually hasn’t even begun for us to be involved in authorizing drilling on Battlement Mesa.

“Antero has indicated it will develop a Comprehensive Drilling Plan under the [state’s] amended [drilling] rules. The amended rules set forth a process by which that will occur, which will provide lots of opportunities for the county and local citizens to be involved and for us to consult with the health department about any health-related concerns or issues, but that process hasn’t begun yet.”

Antero officials have indicated they hope to apply for both state approval from the COGCC and county approval via a Major Land Use Impact Review by the end of the year. Garfield County environmental health manager Jim Rada has said he’ll brief county commissioners on applying for a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) grant in the next few weeks. Rada has also talked to the state about a grant for the studies offered by two nonprofit groups.

“I can say that I am aware of the request,” Neslin said in an interview. “I’ve discussed it briefly with Jim Rada of Garfield County. We will certainly consider his request, and we will need to look into what it would involve and what information it would provide.”

Ron Galterio, co-chair of the grassroots activist group BCC, said their main objective is to have a baseline Health Impact Assessment conducted prior to any government authorization allowing oil and gas exploration or production operations within the Battlement Mesa Planned Unit Development (PUD).

“While we understand that the COGCC cannot take any action on such a request until applications for permits to drill are filed with their agency, we do desire to have an opportunity to have preliminary discussions with COGCC staff for advice and guidance on how to best protect the health, safety and welfare of our residents in the face of the looming proposal by Antero Resources,” Galterio said in an e-mail.

Galterio also said BCC members want the county commissioners to defer any necessary approvals until a health study can be conducted in the community, which is comprised of a large number of retirees who could be adversely impacted by any changes in air or water quality.

Besides being the first major CDP to be submitted under new, more environmentally stringent drilling regulations drafted by the COGCC and adopted by the State Legislature last spring, the Antero application could set a precedent for drilling operations in more densely populated communities, although similar drilling has occurred on the Front Range in Weld County.

“Whether it’s precedent setting or not, we understand the concerns that the people have, and the issue has been raised and it’s something we can look at through the CDP process,” Neslin said. Other issues such as greater setbacks for drilling rigs, which some Battlement Mesa residents hope the county will set, could conflict with state rules. Those conflicts may have to be resolved by the state attorney general, Neslin has said in previous interviews.

“Regardless of where drilling has occurred before, like in Weld County, there still has never been a baseline health study done for any community in Colorado in regards to drilling impacts,” said Leslie Robinson of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, of which the BCC is a subgroup.

“With no studies or follow-ups, for all we know, drilling chemicals could be killing people in Weld County. With a baseline health study in Battlement and subsequent health check-ups, we hope to take the mystery out of drilling chemical impacts.”

BCC activists also hope Garfield County will defer action on two special use permit applications for wells inside the Battlement PUD that have been operating without proper permits for nearly 20 years. Now owned by Williams Production RMT Company, the unpermitted wells were discovered last May when Antero announced its plans. The commissioners will review the application Dec. 14.

“The BCC hopes to convince the [commissioners] to defer action on these applications until the completion of a [Health Impact Assessment],” Galterio said. “We also are considering asking the [commissioners] to issue a cease and desist order for these two illegal operations until they are brought into compliance with county regulations.”

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