Home loss, sickness, fines and big corporate profits are now part of the western landscape

Colorado seems to be a hotbed for high-profile concerns about water contamination near natural gas drilling sites.

The western slope of Colorado is becoming one of the most common sites in the nation for hydraulic fracturing, the practice of injecting toxic chemicals underground to get at natural gas.  As the natural gas drilling in the area has ramped up, so to have instances of water contamination and sickness.

Bill and Beth Sturdley are now looking for a new place to live, reports the Glennwood Springs Post Independent, after the couple’s sons began “suffering from severe rashes, nose bleeds and blackouts.” Dr. Joseph Wezensky, who practices medicine at Grand Junction Kokopelli Heath and Wellness Center is said to have told the family to “Get out of the house now!” The Sturdley family is now said to be looking to relocate outside of the small town of Silt, Colorado, which the Colorado Independent reports is now struggling with a “rotten egg smell,” that is the result of fracking.

The Sturdley story is far from the only example of private landowners’ quality of life being damaged by large frackers in Colorado.

In 2008, Cathy Behr, an emergency room nurse in Durango, Colorado almost lost her life when she treated an energy service worker who had been caught in a “fracturing-fluid spill.” Behr told Newsweek that when the worker, Clinton Marshall, came into the emergency room, the stench coming from Marshall’s boots was “bucking.”  While the emergency room went into its highest precaution mode, requiring all employees and patients to wear protective masks and gowns, Behr had been treating Marshall for 10 minutes before she was able to break away to put her mask and gown on.

Flash-forward a few days and Behr’s life had drastically deteriorated. Behr found herself back at the hospital. However, this time, instead of treating patients, she was one. The nurse of 20 years began vomiting, her skin turned yellow, her lungs filled with fluid and she had trouble breathing. Behr was admitted to the intensive care unit of her hospital with a swollen liver, erratic blood counts and lungs rapidly filling with fluids. She told Newsweek “I couldn’t breath, I was drowning from the inside out.”

Behr, who was diagnosed with chemical poisoning, was so sick that in the small communities of western Colorado, she became known as the “half dead nurse.”  Behr eventually recovered from being “half dead,” and is now fully alive after her ordeal. Following Behr’s near-death experience, the company that manufactured the fracking chemicals she was exposed to, Weatherford International, reportedly said the company wasn’t sure if their brand of fracking fluid could be blamed for Behr’s illness.

While Weatherford wasn’t so sure of its ties to the “half dead nurse” situation, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission was sure to fine Williams Production RMT Co. in the summer of 2010 after another fracking poisoning.

This time the victim was Ned Prather, an outfitter who owns 1,800 acres of land north of Parachute, Colorado. Prather was in a cabin on his property when he grabbed a glass of what he thought was water and chugged it to quench his thirst. It turns out his tap water was laced with benzene, a colorless, highly flammable carcinogen that is even limited in its use in gasoline. Williams Production RMT Co. has since agreed to pay a $423,300 fine issued by the COGCC. The suit filed by Prather claims that “the company set up an earthen pit in the same spot as a previously-built ‘unlined reserve mud pit,’ and used the newer pit to hold up to 5,500 gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluids, ‘flow-back water’ and ‘production water,’ all used in the drilling process.

Shortly after Williams paid the fine, a Colorado Independent story quoted a spokesperson from the company saying, “While Williams does not agree with the findings of the COGCC, we have mutually agreed with the COGCC to settle this and move on. With the area’s difficult geologic conditions and additional time and expense required to prove a source, Williams has agreed to pay the fine in lieu of paying legal expenses to fight the allegation.”

This was hardly the first time a major fracking company denied the possibility of fracking fluid leading to drinking water contamination.  When lobbying against Wyoming’s new disclosure laws regarding fracking fluid, the Casper Star Tribune explained, “In response to a comment about concerns that hydraulic fracturing might cause industrial chemicals to migrate to drinking water sources, Scot A. Donato of Bill Barrett Corp. said, ‘Wouldn’t you see the hydrocarbons first?’” The Bill Barrett Corporation is major player in the natural gas industry. According to the company’s most recent annual report, the company continues to thrive. The report states, “[T]he recession reduced demand for natural gas, driving the average price to a level not seen since 2002. During 2009, our stock increased 47%.” The same report states that operating with a reduced capital budget allowed the company to earn $50 million dollars.

Barrett is hardly alone with its profits. Williams operates out of several locations. In Oklahoma where the natural gas company is registered as a P.O. box, the company reports bringing in $20 to $50 million dollars in annual sales. In Gillette, Wyoming, Williams Production RMT CO, reports its estimated annual sales to be in the $10 to $20 million-dollar range.   The company’s Fort Worth, Texas branch adds up to another $5 million a year. Still, these numbers pale in comparison to the revenues of the largest drilling companies operating in the west.

Oxy USA, which operates many wells in the west, and is the number one natural gas producer in California, reported third quarter profits in 2010 of $1.2 billion. Like Williams, Oxy seemed to be doing quite well in the oil and natural gas sector. “Oil and gas segment earnings were $5.4 billion for the (first) nine months of 2010, compared with $3.1 billion for the same period of 2009. The $2.3 billion increase in the 2010 results reflected higher crude oil and natural gas prices and higher volumes,” revealed one company report. As for Canadian operated Encana, its 2009 annual report showed the company had net royalty revenues of $6.7 billion.

The huge numbers are noteworthy, because of the stark size differential between the companies’ revenues and the record-breaking fines designed to keep them from continuing to contaminate water supplies. While the natural gas companies’ profits are measured in billions and millions, the fines are measured in the hundreds of thousands.

The aforementioned $423,300 fine against Williams tops the previous record from the COGCC, which just months before, levied fines of $390,000 against Oxy USA for contamination in the Cascade Canyon area and $371,000 against EnCana Inc. for a gas seep in the West Divide Creek near Silt. Oxy USA is also the recipient of a $257,000 fine for leaks in a fracking pit where the company operated without a permit for nearly 10 years.

So, this is the landscape private landowners are trying to navigate in the American west. It’s one where water has been contaminated, chemicals ingested and families up-rooted while the deterrents for continuing to do so seem insufficient.