Battlement Mesa activist: ‘Let’s not go away quietly’ after county scrubs health study

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

Community activists battling to mitigate the potential environmental impacts of a proposed 200-well natural gas drilling project in Battlement Mesa reacted sharply Tuesday to the news that Garfield County has dropped an ongoing Health Impact Assessment (HIA) to weigh those risks.

“Did [Garfield County] spend over $250,000 and not finish the job?” Dave Devanney of Battlement Concerned Citizens wrote in an email to supporters. “It may be that they and the industry did not like what they saw in the second draft. They saw a lot of recommendations being proposed that would cost money that they might not want to spend — recommendations that were ‘health-based’ to safeguard residents of Battlement Mesa. I’m mad as hell!”

The three Republican members of the three-member board of county commissioners unanimously decided on Monday not to approve a contract extension for the HIA, which was conducted last year by the Colorado School of Public Health. It will be available on the county’s website but has not been finalized. Also in question is funding for a long-term environmental health monitoring study (EMHS) that, along with the HIA, was being viewed as a possible model for mitigating the health impacts of natural gas drilling nationwide.

Battlement Mesa is a former Exxon company town built in the 1970s during the short-lived Western Slope oil shale boom. After that bust it was billed as a quiet retirement community where more than 5,000 people now live. But Exxon sold the mineral rights beneath the town to Denver-based Antero Resources, which now wants to drill up to 200 natural gas wells on the community’s common property, so that individual land owners won’t be compensated in the form of surface use agreements. All of the impacts, none of the benefits, drilling opponents argue.

As first reported by the Colorado Independent, Battlement Mesa residents initially asked for the HIA in late 2009. The process since then has been fraught with delays, some of them at the request of Antero in order to provide more information.

“The principal findings of the HIA are that health of Battlement Mesa residents will most likely be affected by chemical exposures, accidents/emergencies resulting from industry operations, and stress-related community changes,” the executive summary of the second draft reads.

According to the Glenwood Spring Post-Independent, Antero attorney Jennifer Beaver said, “The HIA is based on largely exaggerated and unfounded perceptions.”

The county commissioners said they will use the findings of the HIA in considering a special use permit for Antero’s drilling project. Typically the regulatory arena of the state, Garfield County retains some oversight because it approved the original Planned Unit Development for Battlement Mesa when it was first proposed by Exxon.

Antero is facing at least one lawsuit stemming from its drilling operations in the Silt area, and many Battlement Mesa residents have been in contact with various New York City firms specializing in class-action litigation stemming from environmental health impacts.

Devanney urged a major publicity campaign to daylight the decision by the county commissioners.

“Let’s not go away quietly,” he wrote. “Let’s let the rest of Garfield County and the nation know how we feel. Let’s begin by writing letters to the editor of all the local papers, and then let the Front Range and the rest of Colorado know what we think.”

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