Aurora residents, EPA worry fracking could release toxic chemicals from nearby Superfund site

The oil and gas operator says there's "no evidence" of "heightened risk." But some experts argue earthquakes caused by fracking could release hazardous chemicals.
superfund advisory group
Posted at 5:45 PM, Apr 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-01 20:40:26-04

AURORA, Colo. — An oil and gas company plans to frack near a Superfund site east of Aurora, raising concerns among residents, environmental agencies and lawmakers that drilling could release hazardous chemicals.

Civitas, one of Colorado’s biggest oil and gas operators, is seeking state approval to drill more than 160 wells east of the Lowry Landfill Superfund site. The plan is known as the Lowry Ranch Comprehensive Area Plan.

Colorado’s Energy and Carbon Management Commission, which oversees oil and gas permits, is currently accepting comments from the public about the proposal. Some residents are writing in with concerns about how close the fracking would be to the toxic landfill.

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Bonnie Rader, who lives near the Lowry Landfill Superfund site, has spent four decades fighting to ensure the toxic chemicals won’t get out and make people sick. She’s part of a citizens advisory group working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“There's 138 million gallons of toxic waste in the site in open pits," Rader said. That includes more than 100 different chemicals dumped into the ground between the 1960s and the 1980s by companies like Coors, Conoco and Hewlett-Packard.

“We were having nosebleeds. We were having constant headaches. And at times, they would dump cyanide in the middle of the night, and we'd roll out of bed trying to get our breath,” Rader said. “My youngest son would go into bronchial pneumonia with no fever. His little lips would turn blue, he couldn't breathe."

Lowry landfill chemical dumping
Industrial chemicals dumped in the Lowry Landfill's open pits contaminated the area between the 1960s and 1980s.

By 1984, the EPA figured out that the chemicals dumped at the landfill also contaminated the soil and groundwater. The agency designated the area as a Superfund site.

But instead of removing the toxic chemicals, Rader said the EPA invested millions of dollars into containing the hazardous materials underground. The pits are unlined, meaning there is no barrier to stop the chemicals from sinking deeper into the ground and potentially making their way into aquifers.

Rader said if oil and gas operations breach those pits, the chemicals “can ruin the water all the way from Pueblo to Wyoming.”

Bonnie Rader
Bonnie Rader knew something was wrong in the late 1960s when chemicals from the landfill nearby made her family sick. Now, she worries oil and gas operations could release those chemicals again.

The EPA shares Rader's worries.

“The EPA is concerned that hydraulic fracturing surrounding and underneath the Site could lead to a significant unintended release of hazardous substances from the Site,” the EPA’s Linda Kiefer wrote in a letter to Civitas late last year. “The EPA is concerned that the bedrock layer confining the bottom of the landfill could be subject to microfractures that could lead to a catastrophic release of hazardous substances into the nearby groundwater."

Civitas wrote back to the EPA, “There is no evidence that drilling or hydraulically fracturing at a depth thousands of feet beneath the Superfund Site poses any heightened risk of contamination due to the extraction process.” The operator nonetheless agreed not to extract minerals from beneath the Superfund site and to reduce the length of its horizontal drilling from its planned well pad 2.5 miles east of the Superfund site.

Civitas told Denver7 it has continued to work over the last year with the EPA and other agencies involved with the Superfund site, including Colorado’s Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE), the City and County of Denver and Waste Management.

“Those good faith discussions have been fruitful and beneficial and we will continue to keep those lines of communication open,” a Civitas spokesperson said.

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Rader and her advisory group are still worried. They sent Civitas an email in early March asking the company to consider studying the geology, waterways and earthquake risk in the area before moving ahead with oil and gas operations. But even if Civitas studied the geological faults in the area, “it's not necessarily a silver bullet,” said Justin Rubinstein of the U.S. Geological Service.

Rubinstein studies the link between oil and gas operations and induced earthquakes. He said, “A lot of induced seismicity actually occurs on faults that we don't know about.”

That's been true with many induced earthquakes in Colorado, starting with the Denver Earthquakes caused when the Rocky Mountain Arsenal injected toxic waste into the ground.

“They stopped injecting in 1965, and we saw earthquakes persist to the mid-90s,” Rubinstein said.

More recently, oil and gas operations have caused earthquakes in Greeley and southern Colorado near the Raton Basin beginning in the 2010s.

“We've seen earthquakes as big as a magnitude 5.3 in 2011,” Rubinstein said.

Rubinstein explained that the highest risk of induced earthquakes is connected to injecting wastewater into the ground over a long period of time rather than short-term fracking. But it’s difficult to predict if induced earthquakes might happen.

"There are about 35,000 of these kinds of wells throughout the United States. And most of the time, nothing happens, we don't see earthquakes,” he said. But when we do, “these earthquakes can persist for a long time."

Rubinstein said the biggest wastewater disposal earthquake seen in the United States was a magnitude 5.8 in Oklahoma in 2016.

Civitas told Denver7 it “is not proposing nor have we proposed any injection wells,” given the heightened risk of induced earthquakes linked to wastewater injection. Still, whether or not the faults in the area are prone to shifting and causing earthquakes is “not really something we can predict,” Rubinstein said.

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Given these potential risks, CDPHE and Colorado's Energy and Carbon Management Commission told Denver7 they will continue conversations with Civitas to ensure that health and the environment are protected if the fracking plans move forward.

The EPA told Denver7 it is working with partner agencies in Colorado to “evaluate project developments to ensure there are no impacts or risks associated with the movement of site contaminants if plans move forward.”

U.S. Representative Jason Crow, who represents the communities near the Superfund site, is also closely monitoring the situation. Crow said his office is “closely engaged with local groups to address their concerns and help protect our families and environment from any potential risks. There should be no question about the safety of Coloradans’ water.”

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