Matt Hoffer lived and worked in a small workshop in Bayfield about two months before he was hospitalized for severe chest pain last August. A healthy 33-year-old, he wasn’t sure what caused the illness. But looking at the gas well 300 feet outside the window, he had his suspicions.
“I noticed when I spent a lot of time in that building I’d get a tightness in my chest,” Hoffer said. “Imagine sitting down for work and you start feeling sick, and you don’t know why. It started making me feel crazy.”
Hoffer contacted the well operator, BP American Production Co., hoping it would test for possible leaks.
Hoffer said BP officials refused to engage with him, so he filed a complaint with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the agency responsible for fielding concerns about contamination. A field inspector went to the site on Windsong Road, off U.S. Highway 160, to check for seepage. According to the report, no leaks were found. However, Hoffer said almost immediately after the state’s investigation, his pain stopped.
“So who knows what exactly was going on,” Hoffer said.
BP officials on Thursday said tests, vetted by a third-party health assesor, showed equipment was working properly, and there was no “risk to human health.”
In 2015, there were 10 complaints related to gas operations in La Plata County, and another two filed this year. Openly available on the COGCC’s website, most complaints revolve around noise, odors, leaks, destruction of roads and unpaid royalties.
In June, Doris Ney said a BP gas well began making unusually loud noises overnight, and she reported it to the COGCC. An inspector found the operation surpassed allowed noise levels and BP was ordered to reduce the churning drum.
A month earlier, La Plata County resident Ray Cullipher filed a complaint on behalf of 14 neighbors over a road and bridge essential to accessing the canyon where they live. The residents argued that ConocoPhillips should maintain them because of the significant impact company vehicles have had. With no other options, residents of the off-the-grid area spent thousands of dollars to fix the bridge.
“It’s a real losing battle ’cause this is just one of the small problems,” Cullipher said. “If this is an example of what oil and gas does to this county, then we got a real problem.”
ConocoPhillips declined to comment. Cullipher said the matter is unresolved, and neighbors plan additional maintenance this spring.
The question that has plagued the COGCC in recent years is how strictly it should enforce rules.
“Over the years, and I know the agency doesn’t like to hear it, it’s been more about regulating production rather than addressing the impacts of oil and gas operations,” said Bruce Baizel, a Durango-based energy program director for Earthworks.
Baizel said last year, the COGCC was pressured to increase fines for violations, and to reduce its discretion in determining whether a penalty is warranted. For the first time in 30 years, fines were raised from a maximum of $1,000 per day with a $10,000 cap to $15,000 a day with no cap.
In 2015, the COGCC issued 61 orders with penalties, resulting in more than $3.3 million in fines.
Three of those operators were in La Plata County: Maralex Resources, for not closing a drilling pit; Red Mesa Holdings, for neglecting 18 inactive wells; and Williford Resources, for not inspecting an abandoned well.
Each energy company was fined on average $50,000 – though Red Mesa was ordered to pay $270,000 to ensure the company would plug its abandoned wells.
“Only when there’s a huge outcry do they (COGCC) try and change things,” said Baizel.
Matt Lepore, executive director of COGCC, rebuffed that criticism. He said the state Legislature in 1994 refocused the agency’s mission from fostering development to protecting public health, and now, “we’re 22 years into that change.”
“And I flat out disagree with the idea we prioritize” between regulating production and assessing impacts, he said.
Lepore said the agency inspects 30,000 wells per year. With about 53,000 wells in the state, each site is visited every 1.5 years – though wells are ranked and inspected by a risk factor. “We think that’s a pretty good place to be,” he said.
Most complaints on the COGCC database are resolved through mediation between the state agency, landowners and energy companies. Lepore said the agency typically pursues this “correction action” path, but for major violations and repeated offenders, fines are imposed.
Operators are required to report any spill that is one barrel (42 gallons) or greater outside containment, five or greater inside containment, and any spill that threatens a waterway or residence within 24 hours.
Throughout La Plata County, the COGCC recorded 20 spills from oil and gas operations between 2015 and 2016, most of which leaked coal-bed methane produced water.
Though some spills are relatively minor, others demonstrate the potential damage a spill could have on an ecosystem.
On the border of La Plata and Archuleta counties, hundreds of barrels of contaminated water escaped from a BP pipeline in March, seeping through a juniper-piñon forest and into an irrigation ditch 300 feet away. At the time, the ditch was dry. According to a COGCC report, the spill, deemed an equipment failure, was properly cleaned up and BP was not fined.
“We’re kind of in a new territory here with drilling so close to people,” Baizel said.
Home to almost 4,500 gas wells, and more on the way, Baizel said conflicts between residential areas and drilling operations in La Plata County are likely to become more common.
And even with the present downturn in the industry, the risks remain.
“When companies are financially strapped, you often see them trying to cut costs, which means cutting corners,” Baizel said.
Lepore said stressed operators pose a risk for potential violations, and the agency is prepared to handle the abandonment of wells. Three years into his position as executive director, he said there’s no silver bullet to settle disputes between residents and the industry.
“But if we take a longer view, those things do, over time, settle down a little bit, and people do learn to coexist,” he said.
Hoffer was hospitalized twice from what he believes was caused by BP’s wells. But he can’t prove it, so he hasn’t filed for reimbursement.
“When the river turned orange, everyone freaked out, but if you could see how much gas is leaked, there would be some sort of civic action,” he said.
“It’s out of sight, out of mind. But when you start disturbing nature, that’s when you have a problem. Just zoom out on this area on Google Earth, and it just looks disgusting.”
Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: http://cogcc.state.co.us/complaints.html#/complaints