Neigbhors Call For Notice When Fracking Moves In Next Door

The practice of hydraulic fracturing is something typically associated with fields and open land. But it's not uncommon in Colorado and other states for a residential neighborhood to become the site of oil and gas activity.

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In many states, oil and gas companies are required to notify nearby residents before a well is drilled. Colorado is expanding its law. Companies must now contact building owners within a 1,000-foot radius of a planned well. But the new rule does not expand the notification radius for hydraulic fracturing. While drilling and fracking usually take place in more rural areas, suburban areas are also frequently affected. Grace Hood of member station KUNC reports.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: For the past two years, Zee McCarroll has rented a yellow two-story home in the town of Firestone, about 20 minutes north of Denver. When she moved in, across from her front porch was an open field with a well pad she thought was no longer in use. But things changed this July.

ZEE MCCARROLL: They brought in so much equipment. I mean, there was like nine water trucks. And then they brought in a bunch of other trucks that I have no idea what the names of them are. And at that point, I went up to the sign and I called the gas company.

HOOD: Eventually, McCarroll learned from the Encana Corporation about plans to refracture a well drilled in the late '90s. The goal was to bring more gas to the surface. On this July day, a white rig towers over two red corrugated trailers across from McCarroll's front porch. An Encana worker told McCarroll she should have received a voicemail, something she says she never got.

MCCARROLL: I guess I'm accepting they're here and there's not really anything I can do about it. And that's frustrating that you don't have a voice.

HOOD: In areas where fracking and housing developments co-exist, there's a patchwork of state laws when it comes to notifying residents about activity. A number of states require a company to issue some form of notification when it seeks to drill a well. In Colorado, as far as fracking goes, there's no requirement to notify nearby residents.

WENDY WIEDENBECK: We need to continually learn and improve. So when someone says, I wasn't aware this is happening and I live right here, that's disappointing.

HOOD: Wendy Wiedenbeck is with the Encana Corporation. She says the goal is to go beyond what's required by Colorado law and ensure there aren't any surprises for residents. When a new well is proposed, this means contacting people far beyond the required notification area. When working on an existing well, Encana isn't always legally required to notify nearby neighbors. But Wiedenbeck says her company strives to let them know anyway.

WIEDENBECK: We as an operator, you know, we need to embrace. And I think we have embraced, quite frankly, that there is a level of outreach and notification that is absolutely required, regulations aside.

SIMON LOMAX: You know, too much communication is better than too little.

HOOD: That's Simon Lomax with Energy in Depth, a project of the trade group Independent Petroleum Association of America. He says communication between companies and residents may look different across the country, but there should be common threads.

LOMAX: Really we're talking about being good neighbors and building on our track record of being good neighbors in different operating environments.

HOOD: Like rural America. But suburban living presents unique challenges. Landscapes change quickly. The well near Zee McCarroll's house was first drilled in the late '90s before her housing development existed. That's why Kate Sinding with the Natural Resources Defense Council says residents should ideally be notified before wells are drilled, before they're fracked and before they're refracked.

KATE SINDING: A refrack is great example of a case where absolutely one can expect that a nearby landowner or resident is going to want to have notice and yet notice isn't always required to be given.

HOOD: In Colorado, regulators hope to address residents' concerns before a well is drilled. New rules require operators to meet with anyone who owns a building within a 1,000-foot radius of the proposed well if they request it. But that doesn't help Zee McCarroll. Back at the well site across from her house, the white tower is now gone. Lately, a large colony of prairie dogs spends time here barking in the sun. But McCarroll says she can sometimes hear an exhaust fan and sees workers visiting the site.

MCCARROLL: And I think the more that people or companies hold back, I think the more non-trusting citizens become.

HOOD: McCarroll says she still has questions about the project and isn't happy with it. In addition to Colorado, Pennsylvania and Illinois recently added new provisions to prompt more communication between developers and residents. And with fracking becoming more widespread, other states are expected to strengthen notification laws in the coming years. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood.

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