NYC law firm that handled World Trade Center case eyes natural gas drilling in Garfield County

The retirement community of Battlement Mesa is the subject of a massive natural gas drilling plan.

Residents of Garfield County neighborhoods impacted by natural gas drilling have been approached by a New York City firm that last year landed a $712.5 million settlement for workers injured in the World Trade Center cleanup.

A representative of Napoli Bern Ripka LLP will attend a meeting of potential plaintiffs Feb. 22 at the Glenwood Springs Community Center, according to an activist group fighting to mitigate drilling impacts. Also on hand will be attorneys from the Aspen law firm of Thomas Genshaft PC.

Dave Devanney, co-chair of Battlement Concerned Citizens, said there was so much interest in a possible “mass tort” lawsuit that a meeting originally scheduled for last month had to be postponed to this month to accommodate all the interested property owners. He added it’s not clear at this point who all the defendants might be or the basis for any potential litigation

“It appears that the scope of possible legal action may have been broadened beyond just [diminished] property values,” Devanney wrote in an email Monday. “Plus, the scope of possible clients may have also changed.”

Attorneys first began contacting residents of the Silt Mesa subdivision last month. Denver-based Antero Resources began drilling there last summer and had been seeking an increase in well density from one per 40 acres to one per 10. The company reportedly backed off that plan in a meeting with the county commissioners on Monday, also committing to a setback of 500 feet from an occupied building.

Antero has been working through a contentious proposal to drill up to 200 wells within the unincorporated community of Battlement Mesa – a former Exxon company town now occupied by more than 5,000 people, many of them retirees.

Antero bought up the mineral rights from Exxon and wants to drill on Battlement’s common property, meaning residents would not receive compensation via surface use agreements that typically pay private property owners for impacts when a company extracts minerals rights from beneath their land.

“We don’t have any cards in our hand; we don’t have any allies,” Devanney said. “What’s depressing is it’s not only the politicians who are supposed to be protecting public health, safety and welfare, but it’s also the regulators. The Colorado Department of Environment and Public Health seems to be on the Antero payroll. Not literally, but the relationship seems to be that tight.”

An Antero representative and state officials did not return calls requesting comment on potential litigation.

The Battlement Concerned Citizens (BCC) also are concerned oil and gas companies are trying to skirt a requirement that Garfield County must review and approve drilling plans in the community as mandated by the county’s original approval of Exxon’s planned unit development (PUD). Antero and another drilling company, EnCana, have filed for drilling permits just outside the community.

BCC officials presented a letter to the county commissioners Monday asking them to intervene with the state regulatory board that approves oil and gas drilling permits, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). They want the county to ask the state to hold off while county health officials finalize a Health Impact Assessment evaluating the potential cumulative risks of natural gas drilling, including diminished air and water quality.

The New York firm of Napoli Bern Ripka also has experience in litigating natural gas cases, including an alleged hydraulic fracturing spill in Pennsylvania.

That controversial process has been the subject of a just-concluded congressional investigation and is currently being studied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It involves injecting water, sand and undisclosed chemicals under very high pressure deep into gas wells. It’s currently exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, but critics say it can lead to groundwater contamination.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an oil and gas lobbying group, last week dropped its lawsuit challenging tougher new state drilling regulations. But Garfield County officials have said even those rules don’t adequately safeguard people living near natural gas rigs from the cumulative impacts of drilling.

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