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Frack Focus: Erie Watches Air and Water


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There’s a change in the air around Erie, and residents don’t like what they smell.

Last week, Erie town officials said they are upping the ante on regulating air and water quality in the wake of data from a regional NOAA observation tower that recorded propane in the air at 10 times the levels found in Los Angeles.

In response to such data, as well as a growing sense of unease from residents who worry about the specter of wells cropping up near school zones and housing developments, the town plunked down $50,000 on a device that tests for water contamination.

And last week, the town requested that Encana, the gas production company that operates a number of wells in the area, capture 100 percent of air emissions from new wells. Town officials have also requested to be in on the loop for drilling plans to ensure new wells comply with local development guidelines.

The local action is well and good, but it has its limitations. Erie is free to inspect air and water quality all it wants, but it is powerless to enforce anything. The job of enforcement falls to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the division of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources that doles out well permits, and is also in charge of monitoring and inspecting drilling operations. And COGCC’s enforceable requirements are not as lofty as Erie’s unenforceable ones.

For example, COGCC requires that well operators use devices that achieve a 95 percent air-control efficiency of volatile organic compounds, which overrules Erie’s request for 100 percent control efficiency. And since Erie’s local inspection efforts are not under the auspices of COGCC, Erie will have to pony up its own dough to hire out the right personnel to conduct studies on drill sites—money that could prove difficult for the town to scrape together.

Assembling the resources for local inspections isn’t just a head-scratcher for Erie officials. Responding to a recent request from Erie Rising, a group of concerned residents, to investigate drilling’s potentially harmful effects on the town, the state health department said it did not have the resources to launch a study in the area.

In an interview with the Denver Post, Town Administrator A.J. Krieger acknowledged that Erie’s options for regulating drill sites are limited, but expressed the resolve that the town has the responsibility to do what it can: “We have to do everything in our power to protect our residents’ health and safety.”

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