Life and sickness in the gas patch
August 28, 2011
DRY HOLLOW, Colo. – Dee Hoffmeister, to hear her tell it, has not had an easy time living on her Dry Hollow property over the last six years.
The 74-year-old mother of seven has dealt with sickness, her own and among family members, along with malodorous fumes permeating her home and scary traffic on the road out front.
It all started six years ago, she said, but she was forcefully reminded of the impacts two weeks ago when a workover rig was unexpectedly erected near her home and enveloped Hoffmeister, her daughter Theresa, and grandson Armondo with fumes.
“The first morning the smells hit, they just started gasping for air,” Hoffmeister recalled.
Hoffmeister said they shut down the air conditioning unit for the house in an attempt to keep the smells out, but that had little effect.
“If you want to live in your home, you have to learn how to live with gas rigs,” she said philosophically.
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The unwelcome changes to Hoffmeister’s life showed up at the same time the Bill Barrett Corp. started drilling three gas wells near her home in 2005, she told the Post Independent this week.
After settling down in recent years, the problems erupted again two weeks ago when Barrett sent a workover rig out to perform tasks at the gas pad near her home.
Although she had no idea what the crew on the pad was doing, Hoffmeister said powerful fumes drifted from the rig to her home. Her 6-year-old grandson, Armondo, suffered an asthma attack, and Hoffmeister and her daughter, Theresa, were forced to stay inside for several days.
“I’m glad it’s gone, because it was really reeking,” Hoffmeister said after the rig was taken down.
Jim Felton, a spokesman for Bill Barrett Corp., confirmed that the rig was set up near the Hoffmeister home.
“It was simply a workover rig,” he said. The rig’s task was to “rejuvenate a formation,” meaning free up the flow of natural gas from deep within the earth.
There was no hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” being done, he said, noting that fracking had been the source of complaints from Hoffmeister in the past.
“We have a relationship with Dee that has evolved, as all relationships do, that’s frank and open,” Felton said. The company has contacted Hoffmeister in the past when major work was planned at the nearby rig.
But in this most recent case, Felton admitted, no such call was placed, because the workover rigs are smaller and not considered to be disruptive to nearby residents.
Such work, he said, is generally considered “quite negligible … in terms of our surface operations.”
Hoffmeister, however, does not see the event the same way, noting that her daughter and grandson took the brunt of the impact.
She said she did not call the company.
“They’ve been calling me every time they’re going to do anything,” she said. “This is the first surprise I’ve had since I got involved with the documentaries and everything.”
Hoffmeister, originally from Minnesota, moved to Garfield County from South Dakota in 1982, with her husband, Harold. She worked for 14 years for the Garfield County probation department, while he worked for the regional phone company.
Currently, they live on what remains of a 40-acre spread south of Silt that they bought in 1994.
They have since sold one of two homes they built on the property, and a couple of their kids, with families of their own, have moved into the remaining house with Harold and Dee.
There was no gas drilling in the area when they arrived in Dry Hollow, Hoffmeister said. She did not hear from any gas companies until about six years ago, when landmen approached her and Harold to lease their mineral rights.
“We were very against it,” she recalled. They watched a neighbor deal with another gas drilling company and ultimately move away to escape the smells, noise and other problems.
Ultimately convinced that they had no choice but to lease their rights, she said, they signed a deal with Barrett, then went on a month-long trip back to Minnesota to visit family.
“We came home and drove up our driveway,” Hoffmeister recalled, “and saw this huge rig and all these semis sitting around idling.”
But the worst was “this big gray cloud” enveloping their house, and the odors that filled the inside of the house in their absence.
“I suppose it was all the trucks idling,” Hoffmeister mused.
Whatever the source, when she entered the house, she recalled, “I started getting dizzy and I passed out.”
Her family converged on her, carried her out to the car and drove her to her daughter’s house in West Glenwood, where she stayed for eight months. Any time she went home, she said, she would fall ill immediately, feeling dizzy, light-headed and weak, with occasional stomach upset.
Over the eight months she lived in West Glenwood, Hoffmeister said, she started receiving treatments from an acupuncturist in Grand Junction that have helped some. Those treatments continue, and she is trying other non-traditional treatments to deal with her symptoms.
When she returned home after her eight-month absence, in 2006, she said, it was only a couple of days before a nearby rig caught fire.
Harold ran out onto the porch to see what was going on, she recalled.
“He burned his feet, the deck was so hot,” she said.
The rig fire jump started a recurrence of her symptoms, forcing her to lie down or fall down.
“I tried to open my eyes,” she said, “and I couldn’t. I was so sick.”
She suffered severe back pain and a spinning sensation that sent her to the hospital for tests. The tests were inconclusive, she said.
“This is chemical poisoning. They’re not trained for chemical testing,” she said.
In the meantime, her grandson Armondo, one year old at the time the nearby drilling started up, was diagnosed with asthma short time later. He continues to suffer attacks if the fumes become intense, Hoffmeister said, including a serious attack two weeks ago.
The family keeps plenty of asthma medication on hand to deal with the attacks, she said.
The industry, it should be pointed out, has long discounted claims by those living near gas wells that the drilling-related activities were making them sick.
There is no proof that drilling, hydraulic fracturing or other industry activities have polluted the air or water near the rigs, nor that illnesses reported by nearby residents are connected to the drilling rigs, industry spokesman have stated repeatedly.
‘I thought I was the only one’
“When it happened to me, I thought I was the only one,” Hoffmeister said.
She called government offices for assistance, but got none, she said.
But before long, she encountered other local residents who reported similar experiences.
Over the years, Hoffmeister connected with like-minded community members, and has become active in efforts aimed at questioning whether the benefits of gas production are worth what they feel are the negative impacts of gas drilling.
A call from local activist Tara Meixsell alerted Hoffmeister to others with similar health complaints. Meixsell also introduced Hoffmeister to an Associated Press reporter for a story on her experiences.
Hoffmeister has been featured in two documentary films about the impacts of the gas industry on communities, “Split Estate” in 2009 and “Gasland” in 2010. Both films were roundly panned by the natural gas industry and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission as inaccurate and overly sensational.
She also was interviewed once by a French TV reporter.
“It’s international, this fight against fracking,” she noted.
Nowadays, her pains tend to migrate from one part of her body to another, and her hands and feet itch and burn much of the time.
Whenever she and others with similar complaints would get together and talk about their ailments, she said, “we’d joke that it was trying to find a way out of our bodies.”
She continues to spend a lot of time inside, unable to water or work in her garden when the odors become unbearable.
And her symptoms, which retreated for a time, seem to be regaining strength, she said.
Oddly, she said, Harold has not been affected as she has. However, he recently has begun developing sinus infections that linger for weeks and cannot be explained.
“I think it’s something that’s affected by all this,” Hoffmeister said, using a worried tone.