Fracking Boom Town Lacks Equipment to Fight Toxic Explosions and Spills

GREELEY, Colo. — Residents in the heart of this oil-and-gas boom town for years have watched drilling operations advance toward their homes, moving in from the high-plains grasslands, then farm fields, then strip-mall suburbs. At public commission meetings and town-hall gatherings residents have raised concerns about air quality, water contamination, noise and traffic. In recent weeks, city authorities have given them something else to worry about: toxic explosions and spills local safety officials admit they are unprepared to handle.

Under questioning at a city planning commission meeting on Monday, Fire Marshall Dale Lyman conceded that the city had none of the fire-fighting foam equipment emergency teams use to combat oil-and-gas blazes. “This is an area where we need help,” Lyman said. “We keep five-gallon buckets of the foam in garages around the city. We bring it to mix with water at the site, or we call in air support.”

The commission was weighing a proposal submitted by local extractor Mineral Resources, which was looking to expand its “Greeley Directional” drilling site.

The site is located in the south-east corner of the city, tucked close behind a highway intersection, where warehouse buildings set the backdrop for gas wells and rows of drilling-fluid storage tanks. The drilling tanks stand in rows on cement pads next to other kinds of industrial tanks, maybe 100 of them altogether, like bulky soldiers in tan and gray uniforms. Telephone and power lines on wooden poles cast shadows across their surfaces. Cars and trucks stream by. Under the plan, the site would go from housing 12 of the Mineral Resources drilling storage tanks to 42 of them, each of which would hold thousands of gallons of flammable fluids.

There are 95,000 residents of Greeley. The fire department in Windsor, one-fifth the size of Greeley and located roughly 10 miles northwest, has oil-fire fighting foam equipment.

“In the event of a fire, we’d have to call Windsor,” Lyman said. “That builds a time-delay into our response.” He said Greeley has made plans later this year to obtain a mobile foam system, which he believes would be the best option “in the event of a tanker-truck or rail incident.”

Lyman played down disaster concerns. “We’re in the risk business,” he said, referring to the fire department. “There’s always risk. You could put a school on the site,” he said, meaning instead of the gas wells and tanks. “But there would still be risk.”

Commissioner Michael Fitzsimmons seemed perplexed.

“As an Air Force fireman, I remember, we did a lot of training with foam. You have to have foam,” he said.

Sara Barwinski, a member of Weld Air and Water, said that, on one level, her group welcomed the project. “We encourage all operators to seek similarly industrial locations,” she said. “With the advent of horizontal drilling, we agree that a benefit is the ability to cluster activity, which benefits the operator and brings less surface disruption to the community.”

But she urged the commission to delay approving the plan until the city was better prepared for disaster. She said new technologies mean greater amounts of oil and gas are being brought to the surface and stored in “increasingly large batteries of storage tanks.” The major cluster of tanks being proposed, she pointed out, although set away from residential Greeley would nevertheless be sited less than 2000 feet from Salida del Sol, an elementary school set to open in September.

“You have time to seek more information… the minerals are not going anywhere. Greeley citizens rely on you to determine in advance whether this is safe and prudent land use decision.”

The commissioners nodded but, in the end, they unanimously approved the proposal without delay. Opposition witnesses let out audible sighs. The concerns raised at the hearing are not likely to go away.

‘Sheltering in place’

The Planning Commission debate came in the wake of news that Mineral Resources had suspended a plan to set up a drill site 500 feet from Greeley’s Frontier Academy elementary school property line and playfield. The site would have held 24 storage tanks. State regulators gave the company a green light on the location last May and the company was preparing to apply for drilling permits. But the plan drew fierce opposition from school parents. Although the company has reserved the right to restart its drilling applications, it’s not likely the plan to drill at the site will receive any less resistance in the future.

Local media have reported a series of recent Weld County oil-tank fires. Two weeks ago, a billowing-black-smoke fire made television news in Frederick. It burned for an hour before a foam-equipped crew extinguished it and while students and staff at a nearby school “sheltered in place.” In March, a tank at a site just north of Greeley exploded around midnight, rocking Greeley residents in their beds. It took 18 firefighters from Windsor and Greeley three hours to douse the blaze and clear the scene. Officials suspect static electricity sparked the explosion. In December, a tank fire at a Platteville site burned for 10 hours.

And material submitted at the hearing included a proposal written by Greeley officials asking the state for an “Energy Impact Assistance” $635,00 grant. The report is a public document. More than a few residents who attended the hearing quoted sections of it off the top of their heads.

The proposal details how threats to public safety presented by the oil-and-gas boom are outpacing the preparedness of local first-responder teams. Calls for emergency and police responses directly tied to drilling activity have shot up, according to the proposal, and emergency crews have little training and equipment to handle road accidents involving the large-rigs filled with flammable materials that now ply the city roadways or to contain leaks in the miles of new pipeline being laid.

“[New] drilling methods [mean] that the number of sites within the urban area… has expanded dramatically,” reads the proposal submitted by Mayor Tom Norton and Fire Chief Duane McDonald. “Many drilling locations are in very densely populated areas and… contain a much greater number of wells, tanks and related equipment. Truck traffic, drilling rigs, noise, water fueling areas, and associated environmental and safety impacts – such as the transportation of hazardous materials, potential for fires, explosions and spills — are now in increasingly sensitive areas…

“Calls for emergency service have risen to 12,000 responses in 2013 from 9,400 in 2009; Greeley Police have experienced similar demands. Over 300 responses are directly associated with energy development. Heavy vehicle traffic has increased, especially along our major roadways… that require[s] specialized response practices, our lack of realistic training has minimized our ability to respond safely and effectively. Additionally, several oil and gas transmission lines operate in our area and we have no practical method to reproduce training environments enabling responders to professionally and safely mitigate incidents.”

According to the proposal, 76 energy companies are now operating in greater Greeley. There are 431 active well heads within city limits and 326 wells in the Western Hills Fire District, also covered by the Greeley Fire Department. City planners expect an additional 750 wells to be drilled in the coming years.

Mineral Resources Executive Logan Richardson testified at the hearing that 730 18-wheeler trucks run to and from each well the company drills, porting gear and oil and a trademark mixed-chemical-sand-water fluid to the sites. The fluid is then blasted down the often two-mile long drill holes into the rock to fracture formations below and loosen gas. It takes between 1 million and 5 million gallons of water to fracture each well. Once drilling begins, Richardson said, it continues 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He said the 58 wells his company planned to drill at the Greeley Directional site would take eight to nine years to complete.

The Family FunPlex

On any weekday afternoon, cars line up in front of Frontier Academy, a dark-brick building set in a new-ish subdivision on the west-edge of town. The building sits beside University Schools, another charter school for students aged 5 to 18, and directly across from Twin Rivers Community Park, which is home to something called the Greeley Family FunPlex. It takes less than a minute to walk the length of the field next to the Academy parking lot, where on Monday a soccer coach called out to kids running plays and a ribbon of girls jogged around the edge, talking at a constant clip. A damp stream bed separates the playing field from what looks like a grazing field, home only to a hammered-together structure for hay and a clump of turned up earth or manure. That’s where Mineral Resources would like to drill.

Residents say the oil-and-gas boom-time experience in Weld County bolsters the case being made in Colorado – in the media, at the ballot box and in courts — for greater local regulatory power over the industry.

“How can they know [at the regulatory offices] in Denver what this is like?” says Trisha Golding, who is one of the leaders of the Frontier Academy parents group that opposed the Mineral Resources drilling plan. “Do they see the schools. Do they watch the trucks coming and going up the neighborhood roads?”

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