Two House Democrats are urging Congress to investigate oil and gas spills caused by massive flooding in Colorado – a state where the number of oil and gas wells has doubled since 2006, when horizontal drilling and fracking were introduced.
Congressmen Jared Polis, D-CO, and Peter DeFazio, D-OR, in a letter sent Friday to the House Natural Resources Committee, called for a hearing on the spills. DeFazio is the committee's senior Democrat.
“Not only have my constituents been dealing with damage to their homes, schools, and roads, they are increasingly concerned about the toxic spills that have occurred from the flooding of nearly 1,900 fracking wells in Colorado,” Polis said in a press release. “Congress must deal with this issue to ensure that natural disasters do not also become public health disasters.”
Eight people were killed and thousands displaced by what some called a once-in-a-millennium storm. Now that the water has receded, oil and gas industry teams have been able to get into the field to inspect the damage.
Colorado’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) said in its latest report Thursday that it was tracking 12 spills, 14 sites with evidence of a small spill, and 60 sites with visible damage to storage tanks.
“People dealing with aftermath of a catastrophic natural disaster don’t need to worry that their health is at risk because of oil and gas spills,” DeFazio said.
Noble Energy, which operates more than 8,000 active wells in northern Colorado, reported at least four spills totaling roughly 9,000 gallons. In the wake of the storms, the Houston, Texas-based company said in a press release that, "Protection of human health and the environment remain Noble Energy's top priorities as we continue to move forward."
In the Democrats’ letter to the House committee, Polis and DeFazio said it would be beneficial to learn more about how disasters like this can impact local communities.
“We respectfully request that you hold a committee hearing as soon as possible so that we may fully understand the potential grave consequences resulting from this flood,” Polis and DeFazio wrote.
COGCC said it has teams in the field who have inspected 736 well locations and covered about 70 percent of the flood-affected area.
Colorado's Department of Public Health and Safety warned residents about untreated sewage possibly contaminating the floodwaters but did not mention risks posed by oil and gas leaks, saying: “Flood waters may have moved hazardous chemical containers of solvents or other industrial chemicals from their normal storage places.”
But photos of leaking fracking fluid, oil spills, natural gas blow-outs, and toppled tanks have united local environmentalists to echo the call for tougher regulations.
“The state's regulations are very weak — which is why this debacle and contamination occurred in the first place — and do not protect the public or the environment, and so federal oversight is sorely needed," Gary Wockner, of Clean Water Action, said in a press release.
The floods began on Sept. 11 and devastated much of northeastern Colorado, including Weld County – the most heavily drilled county in the United States, with over 20,000 active oil and gas wells.
Drilling and storage sites often operate in close proximity to homes and schools despite some local resistance. The town of Greeley, in Weld County, attempted to ban drilling within its city limits but a 1992 Supreme Court case struck down the ban.
State regulations indicate that local governments can’t deprive anyone of their “mineral rights” – meaning they cannot prevent an energy company from drilling as long as it’s done within the state’s regulations.
“Because the oil and gas industry is extremely powerful in Colorado, they basically fight every regulation and control much of the state government to make sure they don’t have to do everything they can to protect the public’s health and the environment,” Wockner told Al Jazeera.