Guarded relief was the mood at the College Hill Library in Westminster on Thursday, Nov. 15, where about 70 local residents gathered to discuss now-canceled plans to drill for oil and natural gas under Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons production facility 10 miles south of Boulder.
Candelas/Rocky Flats Glows, 350 Colorado, and League of Oil & Gas Impacted Coloradoans (LOGIC) had initially called the meeting to organize local residents against a proposal by U.K.-based Highlands Natural Resource Corporation to drill four pads and 31 horizontal wells under Rocky Flats, Standley Lake, a Westminster dog park, and the Town of Superior.
On Nov. 12, concerned citizens packed a meeting at Superior Town Hall to oppose the project. The next day, Highlands withdrew all its applications for Rocky Flats except a single one, which it then withdrew on Nov. 15.
Highlands wrote in a press release that its decision “affirm[ed] its commitment to being a responsible and transparent operator within the state of Colorado.”
While organizers and attendees celebrated at Thursday’s meeting — some hearing the news for the first time — the consensus was to remain vigilant.
“Encouraged” by the withdrawals, Safe Superior Citizens Action Group’s Tim Howard says via email that he and his fellow members, “view this as the beginning of a long battle where the health and safety of our families hangs in the balance.
“The fact that there is no federal or state prohibition against extraction under a federal Superfund site is insanity,” Howard says. He also critiques the ease with which operators can obtain permits, “inadequate setback rules” for natural gas wells, and the complexities of mineral rights laws that prevent local governments from having much say in the process.
“We’ve got to figure out how to make sure this sticks,” said meeting facilitator Michelle Gabrieloff-Parish with Candelas/Rocky Flats Glows. “Even in 100 years I don’t want to have this be on the table.”
Some, such as 350 Colorado President Gina Hardin, remained skeptical, saying, “I don’t trust that it’s over.”
Indeed, the possibility of a reversal was verified by Mike Leonard, inspector with Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). After a slideshow presentation detailing the process of applying for a drilling permit through the state, he acknowledged during a Q&A session that Highlands retains the right to refile for the application at any time.
In hopes of preventing such an occasion, Sara Loflin with LOGIC passed out postcards addressed to Governor-elect Jared Polis that read, “We are alarmed by the recent proposals to drill and frack in and around Rocky Flats. Please take either legislative or administrative action to prevent future proposals for fracking at, under, or around Rocky Flats.”
Jon Lipsky, the retired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent who led the 1989 raid on Rocky Flats for alleged environmental crimes, spoke about his concerns with plutonium and other contamination at the former facility site.
He also discussed radioactivity at the surrounding Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, officially opened to the public in September. Plans to build 20 miles of recreation trails and a visitor center are currently in the works, while a U.S. District Court judge hears a lawsuit seeking to stop these developments.
In particular, Lipsky said fracking may cause seismic activity at Rocky Flats, which could spread soil contaminants into local creeks and groundwater. He referred to a landfill at the former facility site, which, he said, contains radioactive waste and has slumped after past storm events. He fears seismic activity could cause further damage to the landfill, solar evaporation ponds where radioactive waste was once stored, and contaminated basements of buildings buried underground.
Lipsky also raised the question of whether drilling at Rocky Flats was legal in the first place.
The Amended and Restated Environmental Covenant for Rocky Flats notes that “excavation, drilling, and other intrusive activities below a depth of thee feet are prohibited” without review, specifically mentioning contaminated building basements.
Lindsay Masters, environmental protection specialist with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), writes in an email to Boulder Weekly that drilling on or under the former facility site would only be approved if the agency determined it “would not result in an unacceptable release or exposure to residual subsurface contamination,” or interfere with past cleanup efforts.
A Rocky Flats Stewardship Council meeting was originally scheduled for Nov. 28 to discuss the legality of drilling in or around Rocky Flats and whether any development might impact any aspect of the 10-year, $7 billion cleanup completed in 2006.
However, in a Nov. 12 email to the board, executive director David Abelson wrote, “I have been told by DOE [Department of Energy] that it would oppose any effort to drill under the COU [former facility Superfund site], thereby effectively ending that option.”
Yet, Scott Surovchak, site manager of Rocky Flats for DOE, tells BW that the agency would only oppose drilling if it happened on site or in certain areas where the federal government owned mineral rights.
Surovchak says that, due to the depth of typical fracking operations thousands of feet below the surface, the risk of spreading lingering Rocky Flats contamination would be “none.”
The speed with which Highlands applied for and then withdrew its applications makes one wonder whether there is much — if any — recoverable oil beneath Rocky Flats to begin with.
Karen Berry, state geologist and director of the Colorado Geological Survey in Golden, tells Boulder Weekly that since 2000 there have been some exploration wells on the west side of what is now the Refuge. While it’s impossible to say what quantity of hydrocarbons are down there, she believes “there may be potential production.”
With that in mind, some local citizens are sleeping with one eye open, ready to rouse themselves at the hint of another attempt to drill.
“I’m not going to quietly accept big trucks driving up through the dirt, stirring up the plutonium-laden dirt upwind from my house,” says Marianne Whitney, who lives about seven miles from Rocky Flats.
Whitney, 82, has been heavily engaged in activism surrounding Rocky Flats since 1979 when 15,000 people linked hands around the site in protest. If Highlands or another company tries to drill again, she promises that she’s “not going to shut up.”
More info: Rocky Flats Right to Know —The Doctors Speak. 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28. Trinity Presbyterian Church, 7755 Vance Drive, Arvada.
Dr. Mark Johnson, head of Jefferson County Public Health, and Dr. Sasha Stiles will speak about potential health risks of Rocky Flats contamination. The event is hosted by Rocky Flats Right to Know and Rocky Flats Downwinders Resident Registry. For more information visit: rockyflatsrighttoknow.org