Energy boom ruins water, scars views, they charge

The 4,000-acre North Fork Ranch, known for beautiful canyons and rock outcroppings, is bearing the brunt of the state’s insatiable thirst for energy.

Residents of this community 30 miles west of Trinidad complain that drinking-water wells have become contaminated by methane wells, and that streams have become filled with silt and dried up – leaving a barren moon-like landscape.

A number of ranches and lots are listed for sale by residents who came to this area to get away from the noise and to get closer to nature.

“I don’t feel safe drinking the water from my well,” said Gopa Ross, 57, who has lived on the ranch since 2004. “From my observation, the water quality is not consistent – it changes.”

Ross said his well was tested and the water found unfit for drinking two years ago after a drilling incident polluted it.

But suppositions and impressions, not hard facts, are the basis of these allegations, said Jay Still, executive vice president of Dallas-based Pioneer Natural Resources Co., which owns methane wells on the ranch.

“It is very easy to make a statement that streams are drying, erosion or stream siltification is happening, and then it becomes a statement of fact,” Still said. “But where’s the science that backs that up? ”

Prolific methane reserve

The North Fork Ranch sits about 4,500 feet high on top of the Raton Basin – among the most prolific coal-bed methane reserves in the Rockies.

The seams filled with natural gas often are saturated with water, with gas held in the coal by water pressure. Bringing gas to the surface often results in the pumping of water, in some cases, tainted water. Today, the basin has about 2,000 wells – accounting for half the state’s coal-bed methane wells.

Since drilling on the ranch began in 2005, residents say they have noticed changes in their water. Not just the quality but also the quantity.

“We are seeing the effects on our surface water, and I just worry that next it will be our groundwater,” said longtime resident Marcia Dasko. “Without water, nothing else counts. We can’t live without it.”

A preliminary study sponsored by the state oil and gas commission in November 2007 said drilling is depleting the streams in the area by 2,500 acre-feet per year.

But a competing study, paid for by the industry but conducted under the supervision of the Colorado School of Mines, found that the depletion rate is 30 acre-feet per year.

Another industry-sponsored study concluded that silt in the streams is lower now than 10 years ago, partly because energy companies build and maintain the roads better.

“If we have real data to work with, we are better off to solve problems,” Still said.

County powerless

Las Animas County officials say they have no authority over water – it’s a state matter.

“Clearly we are concerned,” said Bill Cordova, county administrator. “People should have adequate water supply, but we don’t have control to do anything about that.”

However, the county opposes the state oil and gas commission’s efforts to toughen rules on coal-bed methane water, leading many residents to believe the county is sympathetic with the industry.

Tracy Dahl, president of the North Fork Ranch Landowners Association, traveled to Denver on July 15 for a hearing on the proposed rules before the commission.

“I am speaking on behalf of the North Fork Ranch, where I live, as well as for the thousands of people living in rural Las Animas County whose concerns and problems have not been represented by their local elected officials,” Dahl testified. “I live in the heart of the Raton Basin, and have been living with coal-bed methane development for several years now.

“Despite industry assurances to the contrary, numerous problems exist, and unless there is meaningful reform, it is likely to get far worse.”

State commissioners will begin deliberating the proposed rules Aug. 12, and a final decision is expected later this month.

“We do have new rules addressing coal-bed methane drilling,” said Dave Neslin, the commission’s acting director.

A loud boom

Gopa Ross remembers the evening of July 18, 2006.

She heard a loud boom at about 9:30 p.m. – loud enough to get all the neighbors calling each other. Then another boom at about 11 p.m. woke her up.

The source was a drilling accident at a nearby rig belonging to Pioneer Natural Resources. The drill bit had gotten stuck, so crew members applied pressure to release it. Pioneer said it is not clear whether that mechanical event caused problems in water wells.

Ross said she noticed the next day that her well water had swelled almost to the top. And it reeked.

She called Pioneer, the state oil and gas commission and local officials. Samples taken from her well tested for high levels of metal, making it unfit to drink, she said.

Pioneer bought her bottled water, offered to put her up in a hotel and tried to negotiate a settlement.

Unlike her neighbors, the Doloras family, which had settled with Pioneer after its water well blew up, Ross held out. Pioneer said it offered to dig a water well for Ross, but that well turned out to be dry.

“We could not come to an understanding,” Ross said.

The state oil and gas commission initiated enforcement action against Pioneer, Neslin said. Currently, the commission is seeking to reach an appropriate penalty. If imposed, the penalty money would go to the state.

Ross said the incident changed her life.

Construction of her house stalled as company and government officials came in and out of her property to inspect the well. Her brother, who was helping with construction, died, and the house never got built.

She now lives in her barn.

Just as well, since she can’t board horses anymore. She said the three horses she had wouldn’t drink the well water.

“I know the drilling incident was not on purpose – it was just a problem,” Ross said. “But I am the one that has to deal with it. That one night destroyed my dream.”

Last week, Ross sued Pioneer and some contractors. She wants a jury to decide an appropriate compensation.

“We provided Ms. Ross with fresh water for over a year, we tried to negotiate a solution, offered to put purification equipment on her well and re-drill a water well at a better location,” Still said.

“Earlier this year, we quit supplying her fresh water when we saw the negotiations were going nowhere. If she wants to take us to court, we will be ready with our facts to stand in court.”

Residents did prepare

In early 2005, when it became clear that drilling was on the way, residents at North Fork Ranch began to prepare.

They paid for baseline studies, kept records and took photos to make sure they’d have evidence if things changed.

Sure enough, they said, things did change.

“This used to be pristine country,” said Gary East, 61, who has lived in the ranch for seven years. “Now I can see the scars on the hills from drilling. The construction is unbelievable – they are changing the slogan ‘Colorful Colorado.’ ”

Last month, East sold his property.

East’s two sons work in the energy industry. He said they understand his concerns and his decision to leave the ranch – he believes drilling will make things worse.

“I know this industry generates a lot of income, and I don’t want to see people lose their jobs,” East said. “But I’d like a little respect for what we own on the surface, a little more protection of our air, our water.”

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