But what has really put Trail Ridge Middle School in the headlines is that it’s 350 feet away from an old oil well called the Rider well.
Trail Ridge had only been open a year when the mess was discovered. As part of its preparations to build homes next to the school, Engle Homes, a real estate developer, discovered groundwater and soil contamination. Benzene, a carcinogen, was detected at nearly 100 times the allowable level.
Engle Homes turned its findings over to the statewide regulator, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The COGCC traced the pollution to the Rider well. It soon approached the well’s owner, Lakewood-based TOP Operating Co., and demanded that it fix the problem.
After six months of back and forth, TOP Operating submitted a remediation plan acceptable to the COGCC.
Over the next 18 months, Engle Homes asked the COGCC again and again to persuade TOP to do its job and finish cleaning up the site. But after those 18 months, benzene levels at the site were still 10 times the state standard.
And what did TOP Operating have to pay for its two-year delay? A $10,000 fine. Not $10,000 per day or per violation. It paid $10,000 total. TOP Operating was fined $10,000 for failing to clean up a carcinogen next to a school for two years.
The $10,000 figure wasn’t just pulled out of the air. It was the maximum allowed by statute. Even if the COGCC wanted to impose a larger fine, it could not do it.
A $10,000 fine against a multimillion-dollar company for two years of inactivity is like a 10-cent parking ticket for you or me: it’s meaningless, and it’s cheaper than compliance.
Since 2006 the Engle Homes property has sat idle, undeveloped. When oil and gas drilling protections cannot be enforced, it’s not only public health and the environment that are jeopardized. It’s jobs, too.
Increasingly, this is an issue of statewide concern. Oil and gas operations in Colorado have increased dramatically over the last decade. The number of wells in Colorado has doubled in just eight years. Many operators work hard to comply with the rules, but many others take the opposite route: they calculate the cost of compliance, and if that is higher than the fine, they opt for noncompliance.
Colorado’s fine schedule for oil and gas violations is among the lowest in the country. Supposedly “drilling-friendly” states like Wyoming, Utah, Louisiana and North Dakota all have higher fines for noncompliance.
If drilling pollutes our air, water or soil, or endangers public health, the oil and gas industry should pay for the damage it has caused, just like other Coloradans do when they violate the law.
I recently introduced a bill, HB13-1267, that will bring Colorado’s fine schedule up to date and better deter operators who look to cut corners at the expense of local jobs and public health. The bill increases the maximum daily fine to $15,000 and repeals the cap on the maximum total fine.
By making sure the state can impose sufficient fines on careless and reckless operators, HB13-1267 will allow the COGCC to enforce its regulations, incentivize safe practices and quick remedial action, deter scofflaw behavior, and protect Coloradans’ jobs and health.
I will support other bills being introduced by my colleagues in the legislature to address the concerns expressed by my constituents about the impacts of oil and gas drilling in their neighborhoods, near their homes, schools and businesses.
Legislation will include:
Simplifying the mission statement of the COGCC to protect public health and the environment.
Removing embedded conflicts of interest by preventing people paid by the oil and gas industry from regulating or creating rules for the industry.
Adding staff so we aren’t asking 17 state inspectors to adequately monitor the state’s approximately 50,000 oil and gas wells.
These practical, common-sense measures will help maintain Colorado’s high quality of life and provide needed safeguards to preserve Colorado’s environment and enhance our public health for future generations.