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An Erie oil well surrounded by homes leaked toxic chemicals. As cleanup continues, neighbors fear health risks

"Every step of the way you feel like you have to question, you have to kind of just keep at it," said a concerned neighbor
Sara Amodio erie well spill cleanup
Posted at 5:45 PM, Apr 19, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-23 12:41:15-04

ERIE, Colo. — In the middle of an Erie neighborhood, surrounded by homes and walking trails, an old oil and gas well leaked and contaminated the ground.

The operator, Civitas, discovered the leak late last year and is working to clean up the area. As excavators dig up soil this week, some living in the community are worried about potential health risks and are calling on local and state officials to share more information.

Sara Amodio has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years. She knew about the well when her family moved in. But she never expected a leak.

Amodio can see the cleanup process taking place from her backyard. She has a rare lung condition known as eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis. During the cleanup, she wears a mask whenever she goes outside and has air filters running inside.

“It's a known trigger for my condition,” she said.

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Civitas discovered the leak last November. The well, known as Erie 1-24, was drilled in 1982. Civitas told Denver7 it was part of its normal course of business to remove “all of the legacy equipment” and restore the area.

"During our plugging and reclamation, we identified some stained soil and immediately notified state regulators and the Town of Erie before removing and replacing with fresh topsoil,” a Civitas spokesperson said.

Civitas removed the old wellbore and started removing contaminated soil earlier this year. Now, the company is excavating more soil after tests showed some chemicals remained.

Civitas told Denver7, “As with all of our plugging and reclamation efforts, we work closely with state and local regulators to follow all regulations, which remain the toughest in the country.”

Colorado’s top agency overseeing oil and gas, the Energy and Carbon Management Commission, told Civitas it should “post signs in conspicuous locations” and share an informational sheet with neighbors, according to conditions of approval on the agency’s website. Denver7 did see a sign this week warning residents, “Reclamation dig in process. Do not enter.”

reclamation dig erie well cleanup
Civitas started excavating in February and came back for a second round in April.

Amodio said she didn’t receive an informational handout from Civitas, and it's been challenging to get information from the company beyond what it is legally required to provide. A Civitas spokesperson said the company sent notices to nearby residents and gave presentations about the cleanup process.

“Up until last week, that space was wide open, and people were walking their dogs right on top of where the well used to be,” she said.

Given Amodio’s health condition and her background as an educator, she has been particularly concerned about potential health risks. She said although the Town of Erie posts updates on oil and gas operations, including this cleanup, she worries her neighbors still aren’t aware.

“It blows my mind that the Town of Erie is not doing more for families here to address this issue, knowing that we have so many young kids in this community,” said Amodio.

She decided to create her own website and passed out flyers in her neighborhood to share updates.

David Frank, the Town of Erie’s environmental services director, said it’s “all too common” to discover leaks during the “decommissioning” of old, out-of-service wells.

Until five years ago, local governments didn’t have much of a say in Colorado’s oil and gas operations. But a 2019 law gave places like Erie more control over regulations.

“As long as we want to have energy security and domestic oil and gas production, there will be, unfortunately, environmental and health consequences,” Frank said. “It's our role as a local government to try to limit those to the degree possible, while still respecting private rights, not only of residents, but of businesses and landowners,” he said.

Currently, in Erie, at least eight old wells are being plugged. And even for wells considered “permanently” cleaned up, Frank said “all of those wells will likely need attention at some point in the future. Whether that is decades or centuries, it's hard to say.”

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Frank said updates on oil and gas can be technical and challenging to track down for the average person. Erie does its "very best to distill that information into something digestible, something useful to residents, as quickly as we can,” he said. However, it’s difficult for Erie to answer questions about potential health risks.

“We at the town simply don't have the resources and the capacity to make health-based assessments,” Frank said. “We really don't have a good understanding, from my point of view, of what are healthy, safe exposure levels.”

In the case of the well in Amodio’s neighborhood, Frank said, "When this neighborhood was built, the developer built homes as close to this well as they could. And in my opinion, those homes are likely a bit closer than they should be.”

Frank said Erie updated its code to prevent future drilling that close to homes. But he said it’s still very new for local governments to take on these issues, and the town is learning as it goes. That’s left concerned residents like Amodio frustrated.

"What are the short-term and long-term effects here? We don't know. And we deserve that information,” Amodio said.

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