Colorado Politics Redux: The Great Treachery to be Found in Little Things

Little things may not matter the most, but they can certainly be used to measure the truth of bigger things, such as the so-called defining statements of politicians.  For example Trump vowed to empty the swamp.  But with unwavering ferocity, he has made the swamp a vast sea of self-dealing and ever greater venality, a thing many thought nigh impossible.

Colorado’s term-limited Governor, John Hickenlooper, has a similar problem.  It is a habit of his, like many other Democratic politicians, to remind the people, robotically, that we must move toward renewables, and that he is happy to be in that vanguard.

Little things tend to give the lie to his ready recitation.  For example, one of his recent appointments to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is Howard Boigon.  Boigon is a high-end oil and gas attorney. Mannerly, prosperous, and urbane, some might even say that, like E. A. Robinson’s Richard Cory, he glitters when he walks.  He has reasons.  He received the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s lifetime achievement award in 2016.

A few years ago I saw Boigon, a sociable fellow, of course, drive up to a public hearing in his black Porche Carerra, only to be outdone by his client, Craig Rasmuson, the COO of Synergy Energy who guided him into the parking lot in his ragtop Bentley.

The hearing was in the small town of Timnath, Colorado.  As always, the people were concerned about health and safety.  They can read and were becoming schooled on fracking’s many dangers.  I was hoping that one of the fracking honchos would attempt to intimidate citizens by asking how they got to the meeting.  This deliberately insulting and foolish inquisition is often used at these meetings.  To turn the table, a colleague was prepared to jump up and say: I know how the COO of Synergy and his lawyer got here, in a Bentley and a Porche.  But the opportunity never came.

I have no desire to defame Boigon, but it does seem peculiar that one of the oil industries leading attorneys would be picked by the governor to become a guardian of the people’s interests on all matters oil and gas. After all, the state’s second highest court has told the COGCC that its job is to honestly regulate the oil and gas industry, but that in so doing, it must always first protect the public’s health and wellbeing and the environment.  The court reminded the COGCC that such a reading was fully consistent with its legal charter and its own published guidelines.

Is it too fastidious, even in this age of travesty, to ask if a lawyer who makes his living off the oil tycoons is really a suitable selection for a state commission whose chief duty, according to state law, is to protect public health and safety and the environment?

The true knuckle-dragging character of Hickenlooper’s commission was once again confirmed a few weeks ago when over 60 citizens came before the commission to plead, once again, for delays in approving drilling permits close to their homes and schools.  Allowed 3 minutes apiece, they spoke for over 4 hours of sick children, nose bleeds, and rashes.  Boigon was one of only two commissioners who voiced even measured concern.

The state’s chief medical officer, Dr Larry Wolk, was not among them.  He came late to the hearing, exited often, and while there spent much of his time exchanging whispered pleasantries with COGCC director Matt Lepore.  Perhaps Lepore was congratulating Wolk for being nominated by Trump to be on EPA’s air quality review board.  Trump probably doesn’t know Wolk from the doorman at Trump Towers, but the oil boys do, and they reward their own.

Fittingly, Wolk will get to make decisions about the nation’s air quality with another Trump appointment to the same committee, John Phelan, a biophysicist at the University of California, Irvine.  A devout believer in the scientific method, Phelan has, at times, over his career argued for the virtues of smoking—he said it makes him think better; has written that a little pollution is good for the lungs of kids; and that the air quality in California is too good for healthy living.

The two will undoubtedly swear fealty to Scott Pruitt, the guy who, on behalf of the extractive industries in his native Oklahoma, sued numerous times the agency he now runs, and, as the new man at the helm of the country’s supposed flag-ship environmental watchdog entity (more on that later), has installed a sound proof phone booth in his office at a cost of $25,000 to American taxpayers, for uses undefined.

Too, Wolk will surely get face time with the EPA’s new deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and staffer for climate change denying Oklahoma Senator Jim Imhofe who, himself, once famously held up a snowball on the floor of the senate to disprove climate change.  Chances are he will also get to talk science and medicine with Trump’s selection to head the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, CEQ, Kathleen Hartnett White.  Plucked from a fossil fuel funded and climate science denying think tank in Texas, she has written a book entitled, Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy.  It is her opinion that fossil fuels are the “lifeblood of the modern world.”  She’s also of the opinion that climate change is a form of paganism.  Wouldn’t you like to be a mouse under the chair when this bunch gets together?  Maybe they could serve fracking-fluid cocktails and sing Hosannas to the man who invented the drink, Governor Hickenlooper.

Of course these few, though among the brighter dwarfs in the Trumpian political firmament, are not alone.  By the middle of this year, Trump had already appointed 74 former lobbyists to executive positions in his administration, 49 of them in agencies they once lobbied on behalf of clients.

In the end, and despite the pleas of the people, Wolk and the other members of the COGCC approved the drilling permits before them except for one, which was referred back on a technicality.

Breathtaking it is to see the sea of ignorance in which this body is allowed to wallow and drown out what little public trust remains of government by and for the people.

And of course the mountain of science detailing fracking’s many dangers to both public health and the planet is already Himalayan, and grows ever bigger.

For example, Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, a Caliornia family medicine physician is conducting ongoing studies of health impacts from the 2015 Aliso Canyon natural gas explosion on citizens at nearby Porter Ranch outside Los Angeles. Of the 120 residents Nordella tested right after the incident, he found elevated level of various cancer causing toxins in their hair follicles and urine samples.  All but one was ill with a combination of symptoms. Nordella said, “We started doing statistical analysis and found out there was significant statistical differences in the population of Porter Ranch as compared to California and the United States,” His conclusion is that from a medical standpoint we are in uncharted waters “ in terms of understanding what all these chemicals will do” over the long term.

Adding an emphatic exclamation mark, county health officials, based on their preliminary findings, agree long-term health studies should be conducted.  They estimate the costs to be in the $35-$45 million range.  Southern California Gas, the public utility responsible for the leak, has offered up $1 million.

Recently the storage facility at Aliso Canyon was reopened.  Almost immediately health complaints spiked.  The utility has said, based on its studies, the facility is safe and therefore rejects all findings to the contrary.  Local politicians want the place closed permanently.  There are nine such storage facilities in Colorado– inspection and findings unknown.

Colorado’s Wolk shares none of the health concerns of Nordella or Los Angeles county public health officials. Recently, he said, “Nobody would argue that this stuff isn’t toxic, but it’s all about exposure to toxins, and we don’t see anything to be concerned with at this point in time.”  Blind ignorance wrapped in a Caduseus is his staff and his shield, Trump’s star chamber his reward.

The see-no-evil approach to protecting public health was used, as well, by his predecessor, Dr. Chris Urbina, another Hicklooper appointee.  Several years ago he argued against a modest bill that would have allocated a small amount of state money (less than one percent of the recommended study costs at Porter Ranch) to survey state health records to determine if a correlation between fracking and public health could be substantiated. He said such a study would be incomplete and might unfairly indict the frackers. His argument prevailed before the house committee. Furious over his abandonment of his pubic health responsibilities so as to protect the industry against scrutiny, I intercepted him to call him a fraud.  He turned quickly and left.  Ironically, he resigned, not long thereafter, over charges of administrative incompetence, not medical incompetence.

That same evening, a Weld County Democrat, Dave Young, who voted with the Republicans to defeat this small bill exchanged a high-five with a fracking lobbyist in the hallway outside the committee room.  He is now running for State Treasurer on the Democratic ticket.

Wolk has been contemptuous of independent studies done in Colorado by Dr Lisa McKenzie at the Colorado School of Public Health.  One study found a strong correlation between fracking wells and infant birth defects.  For example, the closer infants were to fracking wells the higher the incident of heart disease and spina bifida. Recently, he told a colleague that Dr. McKenzie’s findings were even more suspect since she’d fudged well/health impact distances to get the results she wanted.  When asked about this in a public meeting, McKenzie was openly taken aback.  She flatly denied Wolk’s assertion.  It is worth noting that neither he nor the governor have ever talked directly to Dr McKenzie about her findings.

Plenty of scientific data supports Dr McKenzie’s study.   Indeed, a study from the University of Montreal released this past month shows: pregnant women living close to fracked wells have children with  “…low birth weight, an increased risk of childhood leukemia and a greater incidence of birth defects such as spina bifida.”

Recently Texas researchers pinned another tail on the fracking donkey, showing a definite increase in cancer causing benzene in fracked locales.  An older University of Pennsylvania study, 2015, found a higher rate of hospitalization among people who lived near fracked and operating wells

Moreover, a new trove of documents released by the EPA just weeks ago under a FOIA indicate that between 2003 and 2014 a witches brew of more than 40 chemicals used in fracking were approved by the agency even though it knew their use could result in “poisoning of the brain, lungs and liver; tumors; poor development in infants and fetuses.”  Dr Wolk will fit right in with the see-no-evil Trump crowd.  Indeed, he has been just as comfortable with the Obama people who approved the use of these chemicals, for in his own words toxins aren’t necessarily toxic until proven so.

A Cornell study to be completed early next year could also help resolve Dr Wolk’s dilemma.  In that case a wealthy horse breeder and businessman in Pennsylvania found that after a gas well was opened near his property his foals developed a “neurological condition rendering them unable to swallow properly.”  When Chesapeake Oil and Gas, which owned the well, shut it down last year, his horse’s problems disappeared.  The study will analyze more than a thousand compounds taken from the breeder’s mares and foals.  Funded by HHS, the news report has this characterization:

Much like canaries in a coal mine, horses living near gas wells are “sentinels” to human heath problems from toxic exposures, according to the study proposal. Because horses are especially well suited as an animal model for human diseases, “results and conclusions … have relevance to individuals living or working in close proximity to [shale gas] operations.”

Another recent decision helps to underscore the ideologically induced blindness of Colorado regulators. PDC, a Texas fracker operating in Colorado, was fined  $22.2 million for ignoring state and federal air quality regulations designed to control the release of VOCs like benzene from well pad equipment, especially storage tanks for oil and waste fluids.

The corporate press gushed over the size of the fine and Pruitt wasted no time declaring “EPA is committed to enforcing the law in order to ensure public health is protected.” The governor, Dr Wolk’s Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, and the COGCC took their bows as well.

The press dutifully reported CEO Bart Brookman’s  characterization of PDC’s lawlessness and the abuse of public trust as reflecting “…our strong commitment to protecting Colorado’s environment.”

In fact, all of it was a crude bagatelle.  There was no significant fine, almost $19 million will be spent by PDC to reduce toxic releases from about 650 tank batteries used to store oil and chemical waste–leaks it should have controlled at least 5 years ago. (Numerous large tanks used to store oil and chemical waste make up a battery.  So the actual number of tanks could be many times larger than 650. And even if it were a fine, which it is not, the bill comes to $3 a day over the 5 years the releases occurred.  Federal law allows for a fine of up to $10,000 a day.)

Most of the remaining monetary “fine” PDC can avoid if it does environmental restoration of its choosing.  If it hangs up its environmental guardian shingle, nothing goes to the state of Colorado and very little to the feds.  On the other hand PDC is given until 2019 to clean up its Augean mess.  Public endangerment be damned.  Remember that the people in the fracking fields in Colorado are actually living much closer to oil production facilities than the people at Porter Ranch.  In both cases the long-term impacts of chemical releases on their health is simply unknown.  Dr Wolk and public health officials in California differ mightily on the inherent risks.

It should be no surprise given the foregoing that at the same time Hickenlooper, Wolk, and Pruitt were taking bows for saving the environment and sticking it to the man, they were giving a mining company a get out of jail card.  It seems the $46 billion Canadian corporation owning the Climax molybdenum mine near Leadville, Colorado, couldn’t or wouldn’t meet the federal water standards for molybdenum leaked into a stream that feeds into Dillon Reservoir, a major storage facility for Denver’s water supply.

Based on a study funded by the mining company on rat tolerance to moly, the EPA–which earlier set the safe drinking water limit of 210 ppb, was recommending a 50 times increase to 10,000 ppb.  In their letter to the state, EPA said molybdenum at 10,000 ppb “would be protective … and consistent with Clean Water Act requirements.”  They went on to say that it would be ok if Colorado “chooses to be more conservative and adopts a more stringent table value standard of 9,000 ug/L (ppb) as proposed by Climax Molybdenum Company.”

Mind defying stuff, but there is more.  It seems that whereas Wolk’s staff at CDPHE gagged on the 50 times increase, they had already allowed a 10 times increase for a number of years preceding.  At last report, the CDPHE had tabled EPA’s recommendation, until the mining company’s rat study could be peer reviewed.  The mining company employs 355 people.  Denver Water supplies drinking water to about 1.4 million people.

The boundless perfidy within the state’s regulatory framework was further underscored, if further documentation were really needed, by local activist Shane Davis.  His graphics, mined from the COGCC’s mostly impenetrable database, demonstrate the two-card Monte scam the state has been playing on its citizens.

Tremendous public attention and resistance has been generated in opposition to the frackers moving into neighborhoods and next to schools and on to taxpayer acquired open space.  The state has tended to increase its setback standards as an emolument, giving politicians and regulators like Hickenlooper a chance to advertise that they listen and really care, but such Heepisms are always followed with the proviso that fracking is important to Colorado’s economy and we’ve got to be careful not to kill the golden goose.

While citizen attention has been focused on the frackers, state regulators have allowed developers to build right next to wells if the wells were there first—this lunatic, two-card Monte trick created the conditions necessary for the famous Firestone gas home explosion which killed 2 people in May, with at least 11 other well field fires reported since.  If that weren’t enough to make one start polishing the handle on the ol’ pitchfork, Shane has gone a step further showing that closed and abandoned wells populate many neighborhoods.  Some homes are actually built atop them.  His time-lapse satellite photos in Broomfield, one of the epicenters of citizen resistance, show that wells in place 2013 had completely disappeared by 2015, with the ground cleared and presumably ready for development at some future date.  A day care center might be fitting in as much as Wolk and Hickenlooper continue to proclaim fracking safe.

But the story doesn’t stop there.  The frackers intend to drill under these old wells, including those under homes. The potential for mayhem may be limitless.  A few weeks ago Extraction Oil and Gas, the dark prince of urban frackers in Colorado and the same folk that erased evidence of the wells in Shane’s time lapse photos, was drilling a long horizontal when its fracking fluid breached an old closed off well.  The fluid poured through the old well to the surface and onto a nearby highway.  Extraction was quick to come to the rescue, vacuuming up the liquid toxic waste and taking it offsite.  The corporate press gave Extraction an atta boy for acting so civically.  But Extraction will not bear the expense of reclosing the old well, which its operation breached.  That will be done by the COGCC with taxpayer money.

The COGCC estimates that closing an old well costs in the range of $35 thousand to $85 thousand, though in Canada the government has spent over $1 million to close a gas leak in one well and is, as yet, unsuccessful.  How much it would cost to close a breached well over which a home or building has been built is unknown, as are the public health and life risks.  One thing is known, the province of Alberta estimates its costs could be as high as $82 billion for cleaning up 75,000 closed wells in the province.  Colorado has about two-thirds that number of closed and abandoned wells, but not nearly the resources needed to inspect and close them to stop or preclude gas leaks.  Colorado only requires a maximum of $200,000 in bonding from the largest producers for accidents.  Another thing known and even generally accepted by the industry is that all wells eventually leak, concrete breaks down and steal corrodes.

The states fund for abandoned wells is miniscule, so miniscule that some have termed the reserve requirements arbitrary and capricious. But they are adequate apparently to clean up the latest breach caused by Extraction.  What is not known is how many of these events are in our future, their potential health impacts, and how the funds for cleanup and restitution are to be generated.  Add to this that the state allows the fracking waste like that which bubbled up from Extraction’s drilling operation to be spread onto private land.  This is cheaper for the drillers than hauling it to an injection well.  As I said earlier, EPA’s own records show the chemicals used in fracking fluid to be a witch’s brew of poisons and toxins.  Still the frackers are allowed to spread it on private land, some of which may be earmarked for housing development.  Homebuyers in the fracking fields beware, you can have poisons in your surface soil and poisonous gasses bubbling up from far below.

Wendell Bradley, a retired physics professor who has written for Counterpunch, has conducted a review of the procedure used to evaluate the toxicity of these fluids and found them deeply flawed, particularly with regard to the measurement of radioactive nuclides, including radium and thorium. His research indicates the industry, which commissions its own toxicity evaluation of fracking fluids, seriously underestimates both the radioactivity and toxicity of fracking’s waste releases. Were the evaluation legitimate the liquids would be found hazardous and require expensive disposal procedures that might kill the golden goose.

Clearly the foregoing shows complete corporate control over the lives of people living near oil and gas development and equally unfettered corporate control over the public’s air, land, and water resources.  In this regard the differences between Trump at the national level and Hickenlooper at the state level is not great, at least in measuring out comes. From where I sit, they seem much the same, Trump’s approach is coarser and clumsier, for sure, but not different, and for that reason is a more honest or unvarnished expression of the beast within.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: