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Aurora community fights against oil and gas drilling near their homes

“It feels really awful and unfair,” says a family worried about possible health and environmental harms
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Posted at 8:24 PM, Aug 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-04 12:24:56-04

AURORA, Colo. — Southshore, a neighborhood with spacious homes along the banks of the Aurora Reservoir, seemed like the perfect place to live when Tisha and Bill Foard moved there with their son, Aiden, 9.

“It's our forever home,” Tisha said. “Our block is our family.”

Now, across their block, yard signs show the community is coming together for a new reason: shared concerns about oil and gas wells planned nearby.

“You don't expect to buy a house in a nice community, and then have [oil] wells put in your backyards,” Bill said.

But when your backyard sits atop a wealth of oil and gas, it’s fair game for Colorado's oil and gas producers.

In the next few years, one of the state’s biggest producers, Civitas, plans to drill at least 600 wells along the Front Range. More than a quarter of those, about 170 wells, are planned for just east of Southshore.

“We were just shocked, just in awe, that this could even happen so close to communities with families and homes and children and school buildings,” said Tisha.

Foard Family
The Foard family is joining their neighbors to oppose oil and gas drilling near their homes

The Foards and their neighbors are worried about potential health risks and environmental harm if the drilling plans move forward. So, they created a group called Save the Aurora Reservoir to push back. Almost 1,500 people have joined their group on Facebook.

Just east of their neighborhood is where Civitas hopes to drill the wells on sprawling prairie lands known as the Lowry Ranch. The Foards thought that land — home to pronghorn and other wildlife — would stay undeveloped.

“We were told by our builder, no one would build on that side of the lake. And I always called it the wild side,” Tisha said.

But the Lowry Ranch is far more open to development than Tisha thought. Colorado’s State Land Board owns the land and minerals, and rents it out to companies, including oil and gas producers.

“It's been leased here for oil and gas development for almost 100 years already,” said Kristin Kemp, a spokesperson for the land board.

“Our job is to lease out trust land located all around the state,” Kemp said. “The rent we collect helps fund public schools.”

Most of those funds, about 80%, come from oil and gas production.

“In the last 10 years, leasing from oil and gas operations out here has generated more than $200 million,” Kemp said.

Some of that money came from Civitas, which already operates on the Lowry Ranch. In 2020, Civitas acquired an existing lease for several wells from the energy giant ConocoPhillips. Civitas included those operating wells in its proposal to drill more wells on the property.

Families like the Foards worry expanded oil and gas operations could contaminate their homes and the water they rely on.

The Aurora Reservoir is part of a water supply that serves more than 400,000 people. On hot summer days, it’s a much-loved spot for water sports. It’s also a feature that attracted many of Southshore’s homebuyers.

Civitas’ website says, “in the unlikely event of a spill, fluids would flow away from the reservoir.”

But mistakes can happen. Earlier this year, Civitas was fracking a well just a few miles north of Southshore when contaminated water spilled out onto the well pad, according to a report filed by the company with the state’s regulatory agency, the Colorado Energy and Carbon Management Commission. Civitas said it contained most of that spill to the well pad. But the spill contaminated some soil surrounding the pad, which the company had to remove.

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“It's been really disheartening to have everyone say, ‘Oh, you're safe. You're safe,’” Tisha said. “But what about the Firestone explosion? What about all the record numbers of spills you had last year? When do we take into account that human error occurs?”

Civitas did not respond to Denver7’s specific questions or interview requests. But the company’s public affairs manager, Rich Coolidge, said in an emailed statement, “Colorado operators have decades of best practices and redundant layers of water protection on top of the nation’s strictest regulations that safeguard our state’s water supplies.”

Dan Haley, who represents the state’s oil and gas industry as the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), said companies like Civitas are taking the necessary steps to operate safely.

“I understand the concerns people have anytime anything is happening near you,” Haley said. “This is a vital resource that we all need every single day. And we're doing it here in Colorado cleaner, better and safer than most anywhere on the planet.”

Haley said the industry is aware of community concerns about possible health risks.

“We take all that very seriously,” Haley said. “We don't want anything to happen to our employees, much less the communities.”

COGA says there are “no anticipated long-term health impacts, including cancer, for people living near oil and natural gas development,” based on studies by Colorado's top public health agency.

But several studies by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and other scientific researchers, have found a link between fracking and health problems, especially for children.

For example, kids living within one and a quarter miles from an oil and gas well are two to three times more likely to develop leukemia. Another risk: pregnant women living near active wells are more prone to extreme preterm birth and low birth weight babies.

“The science is very, very clear. There are higher risks, much higher health risks, anytime fracking is near a community,” Tisha said. “It feels really awful and unfair.”

For the Foards, those fears are amplified. Their son, Aiden, 9, has childhood absence epilepsy. Some studies suggest a link between fracking and neurological symptoms in children, which Tisha worries could be more severe for Aiden, given his condition.

“The risks are just really astronomical,” Tisha said.

With so many fears, the Foards plan to join their neighbors in opposing the oil and gas expansion over the coming years as Civitas seeks permit approval from the state and Arapahoe County.

That community feedback led the Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners to consider pausing new oil and gas drilling. But after several public meetings, the board voted to accept new drilling proposals like this one.

Arapahoe County is currently preparing for future oil and gas operations by creating new regulations. The board will hold its next public meeting about those changes in October.

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