Fracking May be Safe; Companies Fracking are Criminally Negligent

From the best regional journalists in the USA — High Country News.

[A great article, written OK . . . . but the issue itself is really important . . . ]

Energy & Industry
When your neighborhood goes boom
How site workers and firefighters responding to a 2017 natural gas explosion in Windsor, Colorado, narrowly avoided disaster.
Daniel Glick and Jason Plautz
Image credit: Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune
Oct. 19, 2018 From the print edition


A few days before Christmas last year, a dispatcher for the Weld County Sheriff’s Office was working through a routine set of calls, ranging from missing cats and parking ticket warrants to domestic disturbances, drunk drivers and a possibly armed meth-head menacing a neighbor. Then, at 8:48 p.m., came a jarring alert: The Windsor Severance Fire Rescue frequency reported a unit “responding to an explosion at an oil well site.”

It was 32 degrees and clear on Dec. 22, 2017. A thin, fresh blanket of snow covered Windsor, Colorado, an increasingly suburban community about 60 miles north of Denver. The dispatcher’s tones scrambled rural firefighters more accustomed to grass fires and car accidents than an explosion at a hydrocarbon factory. Stress levels skyrocketed as the first responders described the scene over their radios.

“We’ve got oil burning from an oil fracking truck,” one said, reading the operator’s name from a sign: “Extraction Oil. Extraction.”

“I can see flames about 30 feet in the air, and smoke.”

More than 350 homes were within a mile of the site, and 911 calls from residents flooded the switchboard. The Greeley Police Department emergency call center summed up a report: “Heard big boom. Shook the house. Looks like an oil rig is on fire. Can see flames.”

The first engine laid down two hoses and called for another 2,000-gallon water tender, but the incident commander realized that with so much flammable material, they’d need specialized foam concentrate designed to smother hydrocarbon fires. “Water’s not going to put the fire out,” he said over the radio. “Our best bet is to cool everything around it until we can get foam.”

Karley Robinson, a 25-year-old medical assistant, was playing Dungeons & Dragons at home with her husband and brother when they were shaken back to reality by a huge “boom.” They stepped outside to see the night illuminated, flames shooting skyward, flashing lights rushing to the scene. Robinson figured it was coming from the massive oil and gas site less than a mile away. But then she remembered the well-pad complex, sitting just 130 feet from her kitchen window.

Robinson’s 5-year-old daughter padded up to her parents. “Mommy, is everything going to be OK?” she asked.

Robinson reassured her daughter, “I think everything’s going to be OK.” Still, she called Extraction Oil and Gas, the operator of the exploded well, and left a message: “Hey, I’m right down the street from where one of your rigs blew up.” Even though a different operator owned her backyard wells, she hoped for “some assurance that my house wouldn’t explode.”

It’s a situation that could unfold in any of the dozens of Western communities that have been stampeded by drilling rigs during the latest oil and gas boom: An inferno fueled by toxic, flammable hydrocarbons in backyards, near schools and baseball fields and suburban dwellings. The potential for catastrophe has grown especially high in neighborhoods like Robinson’s. Nearly half of Colorado’s 55,000 active wells are in Weld County, where Robinson lives and thousands more are on their way. Locals call it “Welled County.”

Robinson’s D&D campaign sat abandoned on the kitchen table while she comforted her daughter. But the phone never rang.

When Windsor Severance Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Todd Vess heard the blast, he thought something had fallen in his basement; that’s how close it sounded. The department’s alert system flashed “oil and gas explosion” on his phone, but at first Vess wasn’t too concerned. Dispatchers received plenty of false alarms regarding drilling sites, especially concerning the fiery nighttime flaring of excess fuel.

Another battalion chief called and told Vess this was the real deal: Flames were consuming an oil and gas site, and a trauma unit was on its way. Vess calmly “prepared for the worst” as more than a dozen neighboring fire districts and regional airport rescue squads converged on the Stromberger well pad with fire engines, water tenders, and trucks carrying firefighting foam. Responders reported flames at least 50 feet high. One firefighter called in for directions and received some deadpan guidance over his radio:

“You’re not gonna miss this, Joe.”

Flames erupt from an Extraction Oil and Gas well site in Windsor, Colorado, after an explosion that injured one worker.
Fox 31/2 News video capture from Dec. 22, 2017

On the well pad site, every oil worker’s nightmare flashed to life with the first terrifying explosion. The crew had been conducting “flowback operations,” probably the most dangerous stage of oil and gas development. After drilling, operators “complete” the well via hydraulic fracturing, or pumping a mixture of sand, water and chemicals at high pressure to release hydrocarbons from tight rock formations more than a mile underground. Afterwards, the fracking fluids, along with other toxic chemicals, dissolved solids and heavy metals flow back to the surface at high pressure. The liquids are sorted, stored and eventually moved off-site. The Stromberger facility, which sprawled across an area larger than eight football fields, contained 19 flowing wells, along with an assortment of other industrial apparatus, much of it filled or flowing with a salty, flammable chemical and hydrocarbon stew.

“Do an emergency shut in. SHUT IN NOW!” supervisors yelled, desperate to ensure that no more oil and gas leaked out and caused an even bigger blast.

“It could’ve been like an atomic bomb going off.”
—Ernie Bouldin, supervisor for one of Extraction Oil and Gas’ contractors

Workers darted around frantically, shutting off valves, with some of them wielding fire extinguishers. Ernie Bouldin, 57, a supervisor for one of Extraction’s contractors, Colter Energy, who was on-site that night, said that the workers’ quick action helped avoid the worst-case scenario. If they hadn’t shut everything down, Bouldin later said, “It could’ve been like an atomic bomb going off.”

Pressurized pipelines popped beneath their feet and heat singed their coveralls on the freezing night. As workers hustled to shut valves before heading to a designated “muster” area, two of them saw a figure silhouetted against the flames. Houston “Ty” Pirtle staggered aimlessly, arms hanging awkwardly by his sides. They rushed over and heard him wheezing through a damaged airway. That’s when the chilling reality sunk in: The explosion had touched one of their own.

Picture Caption: Karley Robinson with her newborn baby outside her home in Windsor. She heard the “boom” and saw the ensuing inferno from the Stromberger well explosion last December.
Ted Wood/The Story Group

Denver media and official reports portrayed the events of that winter night as a quickly contained fire that posed little danger to the public or the environment. But first responder dispatch tapes not made public until now, along with newly released documents and interviews with workers, experts and first responders, paint a darker picture, one of chaos on the verge of catastrophe.

The Windsor explosion highlights what many neighbors wonder: Who is looking out for their safety? Neither the state agency overseeing the oil and gas industry nor the health and environment department conducted an independent investigation of the disaster or its environmental impact. The only fine levied was a small one against an on-site contractor for workplace safety violations. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, issued a “Notice of Alleged Violation” against Extraction in August, which has the “potential to result in a penalty.” But no penalty has been announced. And even as Extraction Oil and Gas acknowledges that it still doesn’t know exactly what happened in Windsor, the company continues to receive approval to drill more wells in even more densely populated towns.

Nevertheless, fallout from the incident continues to ripple across the state, particularly along the Front Range, where drilling rigs are popping up in backyards while brand-new housing developments sprout next to old oil and gas fields. It’s become a rallying point in an intense campaign around a November ballot measure that would require oil and gas wells to be located farther away from homes and schools.

The incident also reminded Robinson, the young mother, that she may have traded her family’s safety for the low cost of their home. Robinson just had her second child in August, a boy born four weeks premature, and now it’s always on her mind.

“I feel like I’m playing Russian roulette with my family,” she said.

Herb Brady, former chief of Windsor Severance Fire Rescue, stands for a portrait in Houston, Texas, where he now works for an EMS vehicle manufacturer.
Jeff Lautenberger for High Country News

In his eight years as fire chief for the city of Windsor, Herb Brady had watched the steady encroachment of oil and gas wells on new subdivisions, and vice-versa. He had become accustomed to gratefully receiving the “baubles and trinkets” the energy companies offered his rural fire department, including expensive gas monitors and financial donations. He thought “fracktivists” bent on shutting down the industry were hysterical troublemakers.

The Stromberger explosion reshaped his worldview.

Now living in Houston, the 55-year-old said he sees how industry money manipulates public opinion and local politicians, projecting a false aura of competence and oversight over “petrochemical plants in people’s backyards.” The industry wields influence throughout Colorado, blocking even modest legislative reforms, pressuring regulators and using the courts to get huge tax breaks and intimidate opponents. Brady now recognizes what he calls his “detrimental reliance” on state and federal agencies that oversee the industry. “I always thought that the COGCC and OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) were on top of things, and all I had to do was do my job.”

Now, he said, “The public has a right to be concerned. It is a dangerous situation.”

For Brady, seeing that firefighters responding that night lacked the necessary protective gear and training underscored just how unprepared rural departments are for an event of this magnitude. “It was just a roll of the dice, the fact that nobody died. We were lucky.”

Ernie Bouldin, oil and gas contractor, now retired on medical leave.
Ted Wood/The Story Group

Right before the blast, the Stromberger crew of 13 “flow-back operations assistants” and three supervisors ticked through their routine rounds, inspecting the wells and aboveground storage tanks, 23 separators, seven combustors and miles of piping around the site. Bouldin, one of the site supervisors on duty, said the workers were “like family” to each other, even as they bitched about the cold and the long hours.

Bouldin, who is on medical retirement unrelated to his oil and gas work, spoke on the record about the explosion; another worker spoke with a promise of anonymity because he still works in the industry. Others relayed through intermediaries that they were told not to speak to journalists, or that they “don’t want to relive it again.” Pirtle and his family did not respond to multiple interview requests, although they did share information publicly as he was convalescing.

Houston Pirtle was known for being a hard worker, the kind you’d want on your team. With less than a year of experience, the 6-foot-tall, 190-pound man was still a “green hat” on the Stromberger site. According to a social media post from his mother, Pirtle had been through some rough patches in his personal life recently, but the Colter job provided stability and good pay (employees typically start at $16 an hour, plus a per diem). The weeks-long blocks of work, sometimes 14 hours a day, were tough, but things were looking up for the 26-year-old, his wife, Rachel Darrah, and their two toddlers.

That night, Pirtle was working in a shack and making hourly rounds to monitor the levels, pressure and temperature readings for the valves, flow-back storage tanks and separators. The generator that powered his shack’s light and a nearby portable heater had been acting up lately. A sensor is supposed to shut the generator down if it detects unsafe gas levels, but it kept blinking off, seemingly at random. Repairmen had repeatedly tried troubleshooting it, but hadn’t replaced it.

The troublesome generator, which was not “spark-proof,” was placed about 10 feet from the trailer, much closer than the 100 feet recommended to reduce fire risk under best industry practices by the American Petroleum Institute. Everyone knew that was a bad idea, but it’s one of the many small concessions that complex sites make to keep running. Elsewhere, a flameless heater, which also was not “spark-proof,” had been moved to within about 10 feet of the flow-back storage tanks to keep a set of pipes warm on frigid winter nights. Wires and pipes weren’t arranged as neatly as usual, creating a high-octane obstacle course. No Extraction employees were on-site, but company spokesman Brian Cain said “an experienced contractor” served as a company representative.

Extraction’s accident report filed with the COGCC does not identify a root cause for the explosion, but the investigations support one theory. According to an OSHA investigative report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, a third-party forensic team that Extraction hired after the fact found leaks in piping designed to contain hydrocarbon gas emitted from the flow-back storage tanks. Leaked gas may have pooled in a corner surrounded on two sides by 32-foot-high, flesh-colored sound barriers, trapped close to the ground by an inversion of cold air.

The balky generator went out, possibly because the gas sensor triggered a shutdown. Pirtle’s trailer went dark, so he bundled up to go check on it.

Once there’s a pool of gas, any spark can light it. When Pirtle tried to restart the generator, something — the engine kicking on, two pipes scraping together, a bit of static from a fleece jacket — provided that spark. The tank went up in a fireball in an earth-shaking blast, sending the workers scrambling to protect the site. Smaller explosions set off other fires around the site, threatening to spread into a chain reaction of flame.
“If you don’t shut those off right away, a lot of people are going to die.”

—Ernie Bouldin, supervisor for one of Extraction Oil and Gas’ contractors

Even though the workers trained daily for such an emergency, Bouldin said the true test for any crew only comes in the face of real fire. “None of them ran,” he said proudly. Bouldin, three hours into his 13-hour shift, was 150 feet from the exploded tank. Alert workers darted around to manually close ball and wheel valves to stop the hydrocarbons flowing to tanks and through the miles of pipes around the site. “If you don’t shut those off right away,” Bouldin said, “a lot of people are going to die.”

The blast badly burned Pirtle’s hands and face and seared his windpipe. Two workers carried him away and applied cream from an on-site first aid kit to his second- and third-degree burns, while supervisors kept a running headcount. Bouldin sped his pickup truck through “ungodly” heat and helped hoist Pirtle into the cab. An ambulance met them at the edge of the site to take the injured man to North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley.

The rest of the crew was taken to a nearby hotel, where many of the men stayed during their 28-day-on, 14-day-off shifts, for a standard emergency debriefing, then returned to the well pad to meet their worried families.

Bouldin acknowledged that there were “things (Extraction) should have fixed,” but said that ultimately they were small issues. “We wouldn’t have done it if we thought it would have put anyone in danger,” he said.

Jason Brooks, general manager for U.S. operations for Colter Energy, which is headquartered in Canada, said the company would “not reply to any inquiries surrounding the fire.” Extraction spokesman Cain said in an email that the company “considers safety to be our utmost priority and our record of operations in this basin reflects that commitment.”

Even though he’s not in the field anymore, Bouldin still wakes up at night thinking about what happened to his younger co-worker. “He got burned pretty danged good,” Bouldin said. “We were pretty tore up about that.”

Bouldin’s voice faltered when asked if his mind had changed about how the site was managed. “Right now,” he said, “I’d tell you this was unacceptable.”

The GoFundMe page for Houston “Ty” Pirtle, who was badly burned in the explosion.

The Windsor explosion and its aftermath reflect an unnerving aspect of life under the latest — and largest — oil and gas boom to hit the West, whether in Wyoming, North Dakota, New Mexico, Utah or here on Colorado’s Front Range. Over the past two decades, new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques have allowed the industry to access oil and gas locked up in deep shale formations and to cluster multiple wells on single pads. They’ve concentrated these mini-industrial sites closer to communities, taking advantage of laws and regulations put into place during earlier demographic and technological eras. As Colorado’s population has increased from 4.3 million to more than 5.6 million since 1999, the number of active oil and gas wells over the same time period has increased from less than 22,000 to almost 55,000 today — a 150 percent increase.

Picture Caption: Zoom out to view wells in all stages of development and production on Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s 5.6 million people live. Colorado Oil and Gas Commission data compiled by The Denver Post via CARTO

These twin growth spurts mean that large drilling operations and vast residential developments are spreading like competing invasive species, often right on top of each other. Subdivisions near the exploded Stromberger pad sport bucolic names like “Peakview Estates,” “Greenspire” and the ironic “Windmill Homes.” Meanwhile, residents deal with constant thumping sounds, foul smells, industrial lights and toxic emissions from fracking operations a Frisbee-toss away from backyard play areas.

Fearful and frustrated citizens in towns from Lafayette to Loveland and beyond have educated themselves about arcane subsurface mineral rights law while fighting for greater local control. Some cities passed fracking bans, which were overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. Two months before the Windsor explosion, nine local governments signed a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, stating: “There is a large and growing consensus that this intensive industrial activity does not belong in residential neighborhoods, near schools or hospitals, or in close proximity to drinking water supplies.”

Even some industry officials have publicly stated that safety issues are getting short shrift. Citing former executives saying that top management had de-emphasized safety considerations, Anadarko shareholders filed a class action suit late last year, claiming the company’s Colorado operations were a “ticking time bomb.”

When Battalion Chief Vess arrived on the scene, small explosions rocked the chilly night as pockets of pressure blew and ignited. The firefighters approached the fire as they would any other, sending firefighters and engines as close to the burning equipment as seemed prudent. The incident commander determined that Engine 1 would be their “line in the sand” at what seemed like a safe distance from the facility.

With flammable fluid still leaking and the danger of re-ignition high, firefighters couldn’t extinguish the blaze with water. So they started calling in specialized firefighting foam from regional responders, companies and local airports.

Extraction employees arrived on-site, urging firefighters to protect the well heads and warning them about new hazards. Firefighters relayed the information to Command. At one point, a “little house” near Engine 7 was Extraction’s “primary concern” because it contained valves that checked the back pressure. “If that goes, all the back pressure’s going to go.”

New events raised more alarms. “The separator is something that’s at high risk,” said a voice on the radio. “We need to get some water on that quickly.”

Smaller explosions continued to go off. A voice broke in over the firefighter frequency, relaying a message from Extraction’s liaison: “We’ve got a serious hazard behind the green heaters on the east side where the real heavy black smoke is coming up. He described those as ‘bombs.’ If they go, then we’re all getting hurt.”

Another explosion, and the tone of the communications took on more urgency. The incident commander took over. “We need to pull our people back. Everybody pull back. We’re going emergency traffic. All units pull back to a safe location. Behind the command post. All units begin clearing out. You guys get your people and your engine out of there, now.”

One of the firefighters wanted to make sure that he heard correctly, because there was no way to remove hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment without sending personnel closer to the burning site. “If you want apparatus, we’re going to have to make another trip back in.”

“That’s negative. Go ahead and just get your people out.”

Two firefighters started to go back in anyway, trying to retrieve equipment. The incident commander ordered them to stop.

“All units, from command,” he said. “We’re abandoning the site. We’re letting it go.”

The Stromberger site as it looks today, after remediation from the 2017 explosions and fire.
Ted Wood/The Story Group


Water tenders and trucks kept arriving, bearing 265-gallon “totes” of foam in 4-by-4-foot tanks and 55-gallon drums, requiring a ratio of 97 parts water to three parts foam. Initially, water supply was tight. It took five minutes to drive each way to the closest hydrant and five minutes to fill each tender, plus waiting time as drivers lined up for their turns. Firefighters called around for a second water source, and at one point sought a highway flare to thaw a frozen connection to a second hydrant. Extraction, which has contracts for emergency water, trucked in more in 18-wheelers.

Uncertain about how soon the fires would be contained and lacking specialized expertise even in well-heavy Colorado, Extraction called in Houston-based Wild Well Control, a company that’s responded to oil disasters from Kuwait to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A crew mobilized in Texas but didn’t arrive on-site until daybreak.

All night long, firefighters kept a steady stream of foam and water aimed at the facility. Eventually, the abandoned equipment was no longer in danger. Firefighters worked throughout the next morning, monitoring flames that occasionally licked up and popped like bottle rockets.

Firefighters ended up using more than 3,500 gallons of foam. Retired Fire Chief Brady said that figure doesn’t include an undisclosed amount that was rounded up from private sources, including other energy companies like Noble Energy. Windsor Severance Fire only had two totes. “We used pretty much all the foam in northern Colorado,” Brady recalled, leaving many first responders without any on hand after the fire. Replacement foam had to be trucked in from Texas.

The specification sheets for the foams state that they contain anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of some form of ethylene glycol, a major component of antifreeze, plus an undisclosed percentage of “proprietary” materials that contain chemicals known as PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances. Dubbed “forever chemicals,” they are long-lasting in groundwater and of concern to public health officials and oil and gas industry operators alike. They have been notably linked to contamination near Colorado’s Buckley Air Force Base and other military sites.

During the night, a mixture of water and firefighting foam began flowing towards the site perimeter. Firefighters brought earth-moving equipment in to contain the runoff. Brady said that a “caravan” of big trucks brought in by Extraction were loaded with the runoff and carted away. Extraction refuses to say where the material was disposed of, and the state does not require such a disclosure. Extraction’s Cain said in an email: “The material was taken to a licensed commercial disposal facility. That’s all I have to share.”

Ultimately, Extraction Oil and Gas “remediated” the Stromberger site by carting away 406 tons of dirt over a week in April, according to manifests filed with the COGCC. They deposited that dirt in the North Weld County landfill, a clay-lined facility that does not accept hazardous waste. The soil was classified as “Non-regulated solid: E&P Contaminated Soil” on a “non-hazardous manifest.”

That nonspecific description of “Exploration and Production” wastes exemplifies the opaque regulations governing the industry. In 2002, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency reclassified fluids emitted from oil and gas drilling operations as non-toxic waste that did not need to be reported. These wastes include produced water containing multiple contaminants, as well as drilling fluids, stimulation fluids, liquid hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon-bearing soil.

The so-called shale revolution took off, and reclassification soon led to exemption. In 2005, then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s “Energy Task Force” led to legislation that exempted hydraulic fracturing fluids from every major federal environmental law.

Doc Nyiro, environmental protection manager for Waste Management, which operates the North Weld landfill, wrote that firefighting foam-contaminated soil is acceptable at the site. Both the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the COGCC said there is no requirement to report the use of firefighting foam, nor to test for related chemicals when companies dump potentially contaminated soil in landfills.

As one consequence, Health Department spokesman Mark Salley wrote in an email, “The extent of PFAS contamination in Colorado’s groundwater is unknown.”

A screen capture from television news footage shows a Firestone, Colorado, home fully engulfed by flames in April 2017. Two men died and a woman was severely injured in the fire, which was caused by a leak in an underground pipeline.
YouTube Video capture from Denver7

Colorado’s most infamous gas explosion occurred on April 17, 2017, when a leak in an underground pipeline exploded a suburban home in Firestone, less than 25 miles north of the Denver city limits. The blast killed two men, Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law, Joe Irwin, and severely burned Martinez’s wife, Erin.

It was followed by a flurry of “never-again” statements. Though Colorado has not seen another household explosion, natural gas infrastructure continues to pose dangers around the country. In January this year, five workers were killed in an oil well explosion in Oklahoma. In September, explosions linked to natural gas pipelines killed one person and destroyed several homes in three Boston neighborhoods, just a week after a western Pennsylvania town was evacuated for its own pipeline fire.

The Windsor blast is a reminder that the hazard remains high, stoking the fears of communities potentially in harm’s way. According to a 2017 study by the Colorado School of Public Health that analyzed state accident reports, there were 116 reported fires or explosions at Colorado oil and gas sites between 2006 and 2015 — an average of almost one per month. But those numbers only reflect incidents covered by the state’s reporting requirements at the time, which, as the authors noted, were less stringent than those in Utah, a state hardly renowned for its strict environmental rules.

Until recently, Colorado only required companies to report explosions and fires if they resulted in an injury to the general public that required medical treatment, or if there was “significant damage” to a well or equipment, a judgment left to the operator’s discretion.

The authors say the number of actual fires and explosions in Colorado likely would be almost two and half times higher — more than one incident every two weeks — if the state had stronger reporting requirements. They noted: “The increased size and complexity of operations at multi-well pads will likely continue in the future, particularly in urban and suburban areas, increasing the potential risk for those living and working in close proximity to these sites.”
“The volume of activity that occurs without serious incident in such a large and dispersed industry is also worth noting alongside the accidents that unfortunately do at times occur.”

—Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission

Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees COGCC, said, “Any spill or fire is one too many, and we continue to work hard to reduce those events.” Hartman added that with more than 55,000 active wells in the state, 116 accidents is “equal to one event every 1,573,276 well/days,” or days a well is operated. “The volume of activity that occurs without serious incident in such a large and dispersed industry is also worth noting alongside the accidents that unfortunately do at times occur.”

Still, operators have reported more than 40 fires and explosions at oil and gas facilities since the end of 2015, when the Colorado School of Public Health team stopped their data analysis — more than one a month. The incident descriptions are often vague and are buried in the COGCC’s difficult-to-navigate website. Several incidents caused fatalities, including an oil tank battery explosion in Mead a month after Firestone, which killed one worker and injured three.

State oil and gas inspector Mike Leonard, who was on the scene in Windsor that night, says people outside the industry tend to conflate the causes of these oil and gas accidents. “What happened at Windsor is not what happened at Firestone,” Leonard said. “It’s not what happened at Mead.”

Those distinctions may indeed be lost on Colorado communities where wellpads and infrastructure loom over houses and schools. Whatever the cause of individual explosions and fires, keeping neighborhoods safe poses a daunting challenge for under-resourced first responders. “Nobody is really talking much about the low-probability, high-consequence events,” said Don Whittemore, a former assistant fire chief for Rocky Mountain Fire and an internationally recognized expert on disaster response. “Your average Joe Firefighter isn’t prepared for these kinds of events.”

In February 2018, partly in response to the Firestone tragedy, COGCC tightened its reporting requirements to include “any accidental fire, explosion, or detonation, or uncontrolled release of pressure.” A bill to make those agency rules permanent passed the Democrat-controlled state House last session. But industry officials opposed the bill, and the Republican-controlled state Senate killed it.

Concerns about oil and gas development go well beyond explosions. The same gases that fueled the Windsor explosion can also harm human health and the climate.

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet more quickly than carbon dioxide, can leak during the extraction and transportation of oil and gas. It is often accompanied by volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a major contributor to the ozone problem in Colorado, where some areas have violated federal ozone health standards for years. Studies from around the country have linked proximity to those emissions with multiple health and environmental impacts, including increased cancer risks and adverse birth outcomes. According to COGCC, there were 17,254 detected leaks in 2017 from compressors, pressure relief devices, pump seals and other sources. (Most were repaired.)

In Colorado, those oil-and-gas-related VOCs aren’t being adequately measured. The Windsor explosion brought that into sharp relief. Detlev Helmig, a scientist at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research, ran an air-monitoring station in Boulder tracking levels of known carcinogens like benzene and toluene. A Windsor resident emailed Helmig after the blast, wondering if his monitors had picked up anything. If enough gas had leaked to cause a well-pad fireball, they wondered, couldn’t there be toxic levels of benzene in the air?

Helmig was stunned to see sharp spikes in ethane and benzene levels that night, the highest levels measured before or since. “With very, very high certainty,” Helmig said, there was a huge release of gases in the hours before the explosion. Given the wind patterns at the time, the gases most likely came from the direction of Windsor, but because Helmig’s monitor is about 40 miles away from the explosion site — and there’s not a similar monitor closer — the exact source couldn’t be pinpointed.

In August, Boulder County’s funding for Helmig’s monitoring station ran out.

In this case, Helmig believes, what people don’t know can hurt them.

“There’s an expectation that changes in regulations will cause improvements to air quality. But the only way to know is to measure,” he said. The state health and environment agency, Helmig says, “doesn’t seem to have the resources or the interest.”

A well pad near a subdivision in Windsor, Colorado.
Ted Wood/The Story Group, for High Country News


Industry advocates acknowledge the dangers of oil and gas work, but prefer to highlight new technology and training that makes it safer. On Aug. 22, at the 30th annual Colorado Oil and Gas Association Energy Summit in Denver, attendees — some sporting “Frack Yeah” ribbons on their badges — talked up their role as “good neighbors.”

COGA distributed pamphlets detailing more than $9 million in donations from members last year. Executives encouraged giving employees paid time off to volunteer, or paying to maintain schools and libraries.

Yet critics continue to push back. The upcoming 2018 election will allow voters to weigh in on one of the most influential policy measures in years. Proposition 112 would require wells to be at least 2,500 feet from homes, schools, parks and other buildings, a distance that industry says would severely curtail new production in the state, but advocates say will make neighborhoods safer.

Also on the November ballot is an industry-backed measure, Amendment 74. It would regard any government law or regulation that could have an impact on private property values — including basic zoning codes and subsurface mineral rights — as a “taking” that would require governments to reimburse property owners. The environmental group Conservation Colorado wrote that Amendment 74 would “paralyze state and local governments in their capacity to protect the health and safety of citizens.” The Colorado Municipal League, hardly a firebrand on these issues, circulated a memo exhorting its members to defeat 74 because of its “far reaching and potentially disastrous consequences.”

The oil and gas industry has launched an all-out blitz, fighting the setback initiative and promoting the takings amendment, at times using dubious methods — harassing signature gatherers and spending millions of dollars on public relations campaigns. Chip Rimer, senior vice president of global operations for Noble Energy, told the August COGA conference that the 2018 midterms would be “one of the most influential elections for our industry.” He cited a Common Sense Policy Roundtable report predicting 147,000 lost jobs over 12 years if the setback initiative passed, telling attendees to imagine a town the size of Boulder going dark. “If that doesn’t get your blood boiling,” he urged the crowd, “you’ve got to get your passion up.”

Protect Colorado, a political action committee opposing any ballot initiatives that would limit fossil fuel development, had pulled in more than $30 million in 2018 as of early October, and had spent more than $20 million that year in part on radio, television and digital advertising. Extraction has contributed nearly $3 million this year to Protect Colorado, while Noble Energy and Anadarko have collectively contributed more than $10 million.

At the mid-August COGA conference, Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates — Democratic Congressman Jared Polis and Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton — both stated their opposition to Proposition 112. Even though Polis famously advocated for stricter controls on fracking in the past, including a 2,000-foot setback, he said the latest measure was “simply the wrong solution for Colorado.”

Often lost in the debate are regulations, or the lack thereof, restricting how close new homes can be built to existing oil and gas infrastructure. In Firestone, the exploded house was built just 170 feet from an unregulated and abandoned gas line owned by Anadarko Petroleum, 20 feet further than the required setback in the town.

In Windsor, new homes are supposed to be 350 feet from oil wells. But Karley Robinson’s home ended up less than the distance of an Olympic swimming pool lap from tank batteries and combustors, due to a setback loophole used by developers and energy companies. “Once the plat is approved, the property owner has the right to build,” said Town of Windsor Planning Department Director Scott Ballstadt. “The setbacks don’t apply to building permits.” The wells, in turn, were approved before the houses were all built, meaning that the oil and gas commission’s setback rules apparently didn’t apply. Even if they did apply, the town setbacks are measured from the wellheads, not other oil and gas infrastructure that can leak or explode. This kind of play by housing developers, many of whom lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies, occurs throughout the state.

Randy Ahrens, the mayor of Broomfield, a booming burg halfway between Denver and Boulder, couldn’t get the Windsor blast off his mind. Ahrens had spent six years working in oil and gas, but was skeptical of the industry’s impact on his community, which some residents were starting to call “Doomfield” because of the influx of well permit applications. Extraction had been seeking approval to drill 84 new wells in his town; how could he assure residents that what happened in Windsor wouldn’t happen there?

He still hasn’t gotten a good answer. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission never conducted an independent investigation, instead relying on an accident report from Extraction that failed to identify a “root cause” for the incident. Instead, the company laid out possibilities for the source of the leak (possibly an open valve or a depressurized tank) and the source of the spark, including a vague mention of “unknown worker activities.” The state accepted the filings.

Asked if Extraction’s self-investigation into the Windsor explosion was sufficient, the COGCC’s Leonard said, “Everything they put in that report lines up with what I saw that night.” He explained that the state primarily wants to ensure that another accident like that won’t happen again; inspectors now know to look for where heaters and generators are sited.

The state agency’s authority is limited, so its investigation and any discipline had to focus on Extraction, not on contractors like Colter that may share blame. Industry insiders say that essentially creates a system of plausible deniability, allowing companies to hire contractors for the most dangerous work. “That’s part of the game that gets played,” says Bouldin, the former Colter supervisor. “They keep their fingers out of it so they can blame somebody else.”

Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment says that the cleanup from any oil and gas fire, explosion or spill is not their responsibility.

None of this offered much comfort to Mayor Ahrens, who emailed Extraction’s inconclusive report to staff and voters alike, vowing to push for more information. “At the end of the day,” he said in an interview, “I don’t think they (Extraction) really know what happened.” At one testy city council meeting, Extraction executives walked out when asked about their safety record.
“I’d pay you a million dollars a year not to drill.”

—Broomfield, Colorado, Mayor Randy Ahrens, who tried to keep new wells from being drilled in his city

In response to Broomfield’s concerns, Eric Jacobsen, Extraction’s senior vice president of operations, wrote a letter stating that the company had identified probable gas and ignition sources that might have contributed to the Windsor explosion. “Because it is difficult to pinpoint the exact contributing gas or ignition source as the definitive cause of the incident, we have implemented corrective actions that address all of these possible sources in our operations going forward.” Among those: enhanced supervision of flowback operations, better on-site gas monitoring and new contractor training.

Despite Ahrens’ ongoing concerns, state law makes it difficult for Broomfield to say no to new drilling. After Extraction executives originally told Ahrens that Broomfield could receive a million dollars a year in new revenue, Ahrens says he told them, “I’d pay you a million dollars a year not to drill.”

As of mid-October, the COGCC had approved 71 new wells in Broomfield.

With his family by his side, Houston Pirtle was stabilized at the hospital. Speaking to CBS Denver on Jan. 3, His wife said that Pirtle’s first words when they removed the tubes from his throat were to ask how she was doing. “That’s just who he is,” Darrah said. “(He) wanted to make sure me and the kids were okay.”

Pirtle’s family had to set up a GoFundMe campaign that raised $11,000 to help keep his wife and two infant children afloat as he recovered. Bouldin, the retired supervisor, splutters with contempt when asked about the way Pirtle was treated. “The big leaders of this chain are too cowardly to step up and take responsibility,” he said.

Pirtle’s family got through his initial convalescence with help from the funds they raised. Within months, Pirtle was back in the field, still physically and mentally scarred. A friend said Pirtle is “up and down.”

OSHA investigated the accident, but the agency’s legal mandate is narrowly focused on worker safety issues, not dangers to the public. It’s even more limited because there are no federal safety standards for oil and gas industry workers. Instead, OSHA relies on “best industry practices” collected by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry trade group.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean the best practices,” said Richard “Dean” Wingo, a former OSHA regional manager based in Dallas. “The best practices could be beyond what the industry recognizes, but OSHA is not going to hold them to that.”

Colter Energy, the contractor whose workers were on-site, was ultimately cited for a handful of workplace safety violations. OSHA levied a $7,068 fine, but that was negotiated down to just $3,534 for two “serious” violations: keeping the generator and heater too close to a separator.

According to SEC filings, Extraction Oil and Gas listed $8.8 million in net income in the second quarter of 2018, selling 73,563 “barrels of oil equivalent” per day in crude oil and gas. The company’s top two executives earned more than $25 million each in 2016 after it went public. XOG’s stock value has since halved, but the state has approved applications from Extraction and its subsidiaries for nearly 400 wells since October 2017; the companies have nearly 700 more permits pending.

For its role as operator in the Windsor fire, Extraction escaped without a fine from the federal or state government. It did, however, reimburse 13 local government entities a total of $140,013.02 for more than 20 hours of firefighting and support.

The Stromberger well pad’s neighbors, still reeling from that night, realize that they have to live with the risks or pay a high price to move. Heidi Jette, a mother of five who lives within a mile of the blast, said it helped pierce the industry’s assurances that everything is safe. “When you realize everything that’s out there, it’s just scary,” said Jette. “There’s so much that gets brushed under the carpet. Everyone is kind of in denial.”

In the weeks following the fire, former Windsor Fire Chief Brady said his conscience bothered him. “I’m scared for the firefighters, and I’m scared for these communities,” he said. He began sharing his views, but said that nobody wanted to hear them. “Between the lack of information and the cover-up,” he told himself, “I’m done.”

He doesn’t know what will happen if things don’t change. However, he does know that he no longer wants to be responsible for Colorado’s neighborhood oil rush. “Is this situation really OK with the citizens?” he wondered.

“If it is, well, there you go.”
Help us investigate more stories like this.

Daniel Glick is a co-founder of The Story Group. Previously, he worked for Newsweek for 13 years and has also written for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Audubon, The New York Times Magazine and more than a dozen other periodicals.

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in Science, HuffPost, 5280, Undark, National Journal, Ars Technica, Industry Dive and Greenwire. He was a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado.

Glick, Plautz and photographer Ted Wood are members of The Story Group, an independent, multimedia journalism company based in Boulder. TSG produces print and video stories for publications and electronic media, focusing on environmental and resource issues in the West.

Email HCN at editor or submit a letter to the editor.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

Posted in Fun

Chesapeake Bay Program version 1.0, 35 Years Ago

This is the Chesapeake Bay Program that was voluntary and did not work.

Celebrating 35 Years of Restoration

In 1983, a partnership was born with the signing of the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement


The Chesapeake Bay Agreement is signed on Dec. 9, 1983 by Governors Charles S. Robb (Va.) Harry Hughes (Md.) and Richard Thornburgh (Pa.), DC Mayor Marion Barry and EPA Administrator William Ruckleshaus. (Image by Chesapeake Bay Program)

by Rachel Felver

October 11, 2018

Did you know that the Chesapeake Bay Program celebrates its 35th anniversary this year? On December 9, 1983, the governors of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency met at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia to sign a one-page pledge that recognized that a cooperative approach was necessary to address the pollution issues that plagued the Chesapeake Bay.

This one-page document became the original Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which established the Chesapeake Bay Program liaison office in Annapolis, Maryland. It also formed the Chesapeake Executive Council, dictating that this group would meet annually to “assess and oversee the implementation of coordinated plans to improve and protect the water quality and living resources of the Chesapeake Bay estuarine systems”.

Keep an eye on the Chesapeake Bay Program’s blog and social media accounts this fall, as we continue to look back at the history that made this program what it is today.

About Rachel Felver – Rachel is the Director of Communications for the Chesapeake Bay Program. She has the experience of growing up in a headwaters state – Pennsylvania – and is now living life right next to the Bay in Maryland. After obtaining her masters’ in environmental policy and management from the University of Pittsburgh, she spent almost nine years with the Environmental Protection Agency before a stint with the National Aquarium. Her favorite Bay activities include paddleboarding and taking her dog swimming.

Posted in Chesapeake Bay, Governance, politics

Doctors Can’t Do Math

[Frankly, I’m getting a bit impatient with the number and variety of problems in the medical professions that seem to stem directly from the inability — even refusal — to address the self-generated errors that practitioners inflict on patients.

At least a decade ago I remember reading a similar article about the inability of doctors to understand basic statistics — in one example, 80% of doctors defined the significances of “percentiles” wrong.

So here we are a half-a-generation on, and they still don’t “ … acknowledge the gaps in our understanding,” as Dr. Morgan notes in his last paragraph. . . . . Couldn’t we make doctors pass a humility test before they can practice, and then have to renew it every five years? bp]

What the tests don’t show

Doctors are surprisingly bad at reading lab results. It’s putting us all at risk.

By Daniel Morgan
October 5, 2018

The man was 66 when he came to the hospital with a serious skin infection. He had a fever and low blood pressure, as well as a headache. His doctors gave him a brain scan just to be safe. They found a very small bulge in one of his cranial arteries, which probably had nothing to do with his headache or the infection. Nevertheless, doctors ordered an angiogram to get images of brain blood vessels. This test, in which doctors insert a plastic tube into a patient’s arteries and inject dye, found no evidence of any blood vessel problems. But the dye injection caused multiple strokes, leading to permanent issues with the man’s speech and memory.

That case, recounted in JAMA Internal Medicine three years ago, is no surprise. As a doctor in a large urban hospital, I know how much modern medicine has come to rely on tests and scans. I review about 10 cases per day and order and interpret more than 150 tests for patients. Every year, doctors in this country order more than 4 billion tests. They’ve gotten more sophisticated and easier to execute as technology has advanced, and they’re essential to helping doctors understand what might be wrong with their patients.

But my research has found that many physicians misunderstand test results or think tests are more accurate than they are. Doctors especially fail to grasp how false positives work, which means they make crucial medical decisions — sometimes life-or-death calls — based on incorrect assumptions that patients have ailments that they probably don’t. When we do this without understanding the science of risk and probability, we unacceptably increase the chances of making the wrong choice. In the worst cases, as with the man whose angiogram caused otherwise avoidable strokes, we increase the odds of unnecessarily putting patients in danger.

The first problem that doctors (and thus, patients) face is a basic misunderstanding of probability. Say that Disease X has a prevalence of 1 in 1,000 (meaning that 1 out of every 1,000 people will have it), and the test to detect it has a false-positive rate of 5 percent (meaning 5 of every 100 subjects test positive for the ailment even though they don’t really have it). If a patient’s test result comes back positive, what are the chances that she actually has the disease? In a 2014 study, researchers found that almost half of doctors surveyed said patients who tested positive had a 95 percent chance of having Disease X.

This is radically, catastrophically wrong. In fact, it’s not even close to right. Imagine 1,000 people, all with the same chance of having Disease X. We already know that just one of them has the disease. But a 5 percent false-positive rate means that 50 of the remaining 999 would test positive for it nonetheless. That means 51 people would have positive results, but only one of those would really have the illness. So if your test comes back positive, your true chance of having the disease is actually 1 out of 51, or 2 percent — a heck of a lot lower than 95 percent.

A 5 percent false-positive rate is typical of many common tests. The primary blood test to check for a heart attack, known as high-sensitivity troponin, has a 5 percent false-positive rate, for instance. U.S. emergency rooms often administer the test to people with a very low probability of a heart attack; as a result, 84 percent of positive results are false, according to a study published last year. These false-positive troponin tests often lead to stress tests, observation visits with expensive co-pays and sometimes invasive cardiac angiograms.

In one study, gynecologists estimated that a woman whose mammogram was positive had a higher than 80 percent chance of having breast cancer; the reality is that her chance is less than 10 percent. Of course, women who have a positive mammogram often undergo other tests, such as an MRI and a biopsy, which can offer more precision about the presence of cancer. But researchers have found that even after the battery of exams, about 5 of every 1,000 women will have a false-positive result and will be told they have breast cancer when they do not.

The confusion has serious consequences. These women are likely to receive unnecessary treatment — generally some combination of surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, all of which have serious side effects and are stressful and expensive. Switzerland and France, grasping this problem, are halting and reconsidering their mammogram programs. In Switzerland, they’re not screening ahead of time, preferring to manage cases of breast cancer as they’re diagnosed. In France, doctors are letting women decide for themselves whether to have the tests.

Studies have found that doctors make similar errors with other tests, including those for prostate and lung cancer, heart attack, asthma and Lyme disease. Of course, no test is perfect, and even very careful, statistically sophisticated doctors can sometimes make mistakes. That’s not the problem.

Too many of my colleagues do not understand that many of the tests they rely on are deeply fallible. In a study I published last year with several colleagues, we reviewed the treatment of 177 patients who were admitted to hospitals with a wide range of problems, from broken bones to severe intestinal pain, to see how necessary their tests were, as judged by the latest medical guidelines. We found that nearly 90 percent of the patients received at least one unnecessary test and that, overall, nearly one-third of all the tests were superfluous. When patients receive tests that aren’t needed, there is a reasonable chance that doctors are using the results to make choices about treatment; by definition, these choices have a higher danger of being flawed.

In another paper, from 2016, my colleagues and I interviewed more than 100 doctors to gauge their understanding of the risks and benefits of 10 common medical tests or treatments. We found that nearly 80 percent of our subjects overestimated the benefits. Strangely, the doctors themselves acknowledged this, with two-thirds rating themselves as not confident in their understanding of tests and probability. Eight out of 10 said they rarely, if ever, talked to patients about the probability of test results being accurate.

I have to admit that I, too, sometimes fall prey to overvaluing test results regardless of their probability. Last year, I saw a patient who had problems breathing. His symptoms were typical of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but a test for a blood clot in the lung came back positive. This test has a relatively high false-positive rate, but we still started the patient on a blood thinner, which can treat clots but also has serious risks, such as internal bleeding. Within a few days, another test confirmed that he did not have a blood clot, so we discontinued the anticoagulant, which caused no permanent harm. But things could have gone much worse.

Basic misunderstandings about how tests work and how accurate they are contribute to a bigger problem. Although precise numbers are hard to come by, every year, many thousands of patients are diagnosed with diseases that they don’t have. They receive treatments they don’t need, treatments that may have harmful side effects. Perhaps just as important, they and those around them often experience enormous stress from these incorrect diagnoses. Treating nonexistent diseases is wasteful and often expensive, not only for patients but for hospitals, insurance companies and governments.

Doctors also tend to overuse some tests. In a paper last year, my colleagues and I highlighted some key examples: One was computed tomography (CT), a high-tech scanning technology that is increasingly used in patients with nonspecific respiratory symptoms. In cases with only mild respiratory problems, the test does not improve patient outcomes, and it can lead to false positives. Often, the test shows small lung nodules that can lead doctors to follow up with a high-risk surgical biopsy for cancer — which is very unlikely to be the cause of the symptoms. The scan also exposes patients to radiation, which is a risk in itself; studies have found that between 1.5 and 2 percent of all cancers in the United States are caused by radiation from CT scans.

To be fair, it is not surprising that doctors tend to overestimate the precision and accuracy of medical tests. The companies that provide tests work hard to promote their products. Doctors often think that ordering more tests will protect against lawsuits. Moreover, medical schools offer limited instruction on how to understand test results, which means many doctors are not equipped to do this well. Even when medical students have short classroom instruction in test interpretation, it is rarely taught in a clinic with actual patients.

There is no simple solution. One key step is for doctors to acknowledge the gaps in our understanding and to improve our knowledge of what each test can accurately tell us. Medical schools and professional associations can also do a much better job of educating doctors to understand how risk and probability work. Patients must also play an important role. They should realize that doctors, even quite capable ones, may not fully understand the statistical underpinning of the tests they use. In essence, your doctor may have a blind spot, an unconscious tendency to have too much trust in a test. Being aware of this problem and asking your doctor about disease probability can reduce hassles and anxiety — and sometimes even save lives.

Posted in Information, Science

Seeming Failure to Curtail Fake News Twitter Sites Operating in 2016

We’ve posted this report in our Wake Me blog, but it also points to a core cybersecurity problem we all need to be aware of —

via Seeming Failure to Curtail Fake News Sites Operating in 2016

Quote | Posted on by

The Best Local/Regional Reporting in America

Well, probably. In any case, if you care about resource management issues in the American West, you cannot not read High Country News. Subscribe and then give them an extra donation — they’re that good.

Here’s a story of the Western version of pizza-gate — a fake news “child sex-trafficking ring” report from Tucson promoted by right-wing loonies.


Conspiracy theories inspire vigilante justice in Tucson

How one man’s imagined discovery of a sex-trafficking camp in the Sonoran Desert gained life online — and in the real world.

On May 31, a strange story aired on the nightly news in Tucson, Arizona. KOLD News 13 reporter Kevin Adger told viewers that a local veterans’ rights activist named Lewis Arthur had made a horrific discovery in the bushes beside a frontage road: a bunker used as a stopover by child sex traffickers. The reporter pointed out children’s clothes, an old toilet seat and a septic tank where Arthur claimed kids had been held against their will.  

Arthur had stumbled across the camp while canvassing the area for homeless vets. He posted an outraged rant on Facebook and started getting comments — a lot of them. When he posted videos arguing that there were probably bodies buried at the camp and that it was part of a network of Arizona sex trafficking sites, he topped 680,000 views in days.

There was just one problem with Arthur’s story: It wasn’t true. Tucson police and sheriff’s deputies both investigated the site and found nothing more than a former homeless camp — no evidence of sex trafficking. Arthur then claimed he and two friends had found proof: a child’s skull. Officers sent the skull to the Pima County medical examiner, who concluded that it had belonged to an adult and been found miles away from the homeless camp. 

The Arizona Daily Star and other local news outlets published stories debunking the claims. In a pre-internet world, the whole thing might have ended there, without any more newspaper ink or the involvement of the FBI. But in 2018 — at a time when social media, a conspiracy-minded president, and the erosion of trust in public institutions are providing fertile ground for wild-eyed theories — the story kept gaining life.

From as far away as Australia, believers travelled to the Tucson desert to deliver vigilante justice to the sex traffickers. Their stories became more elaborate: The skull became a partial corpse. One person told me it was so fresh when it was found, they saw it “dripping.” The camp became evidence of a massive pedophile ring implicating Cemex, the Mexican cement company that owns the property. Some of Arthur’s followers found more bones and suggested they came from people who had died terrible deaths. But the medical examiner analyzed them, too, and concluded they were animal remains. At least one was from a deer. 

Lewis Arthur, the founder of Veterans on Patrol, an organization that provides shelter and resources to homeless veterans in Tucson, Arizona, stands outside a camp which he started in early June 2018 in an effort to fight what he believes is the trafficking of migrant women and children for sex in the Tucson area.
Andrew Cullen for High Country News

I FIRST HEARD of Lewis Arthur in early June, when JJ MacNab, an expert on anti-government movements, tweeted about his “one-sided standoff.” It caught my eye because Arthur had connections to the Bundy family, the Nevada ranchers at the center of two recent armed confrontations with federal land managers. Arthur had traveled to Bunkerville, Nevada, in 2014 to help prevent the Bureau of Land Management from removing the cows Cliven Bundy had illegally grazed for decades. Two years later, he showed up at the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge led by Cliven’s sons.

But even in those far-right circles, Arthur is considered a fringe character, known as “Screwy Louie.” At Bundy Ranch, he reportedly called police to the protest site, and in Oregon, he tried to “help” an acquaintance, militiaman Ryan Payne, and “women and children” by rescuing them from the refuge, the occupation of which Arthur believed was misguided. Bundyites kicked him out of both events.

Arthur, 39, is 6 foot 2, with red hair, freckles and hazel eyes. His full name is Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer, but “Michael Meyer,” he says, is an entirely different man. The personal story he tells is one of victimhood and redemption. On a walk through the desert this summer, he told me that he’s originally from Ohio, was sexually abused as a kid, and later fell into selling drugs. He now lives in Tucson, where his wife works in the pharmaceutical industry, supporting him and his daughter. 

Arthur, who is not a veteran, started the group Veterans on Patrol (VOP) in 2015, to provide temporary shelter to homeless vets in Mesa, Prescott, Nogales and Tucson. Helping vets was a worthy cause, but Arthur seemed to be searching for something more. In recent years, he also started climbing towers wielding upside-down American flags to draw attention to homelessness and suicide among veterans. In 2015, he perched atop an 80-foot-tall light pole in Surprise, Arizona, for four hours. This July, he occupied a tower on the Cemex property for nine days, demanding officials investigate child sex trafficking.

After he announced his discovery of the sex camp, Arthur started gaining the attention he seemed to seek. Within 24 hours, he gained 55,000 Facebook followers, which grew to 77,000 in July. “For him this is a religious mission,” tied to his Christian faith, says MacNab, who has followed Arthur’s activities for several years. “He has a huge heart. But he’s got this other side that is desperate for drama and attention.”

And what about his followers, I wondered? What compelled them to sprint to the scorching desert to join one man’s fantastical crusade? And what does it mean for communities when the unreality of the internet so easily crosses the threshold into real life?

The Veterans on Patrol camp has hosted dozens of volunteers since it started in June.
Andrew Cullen for High Country News

IT WAS 105 DEGREES on the June afternoon I arrived at Camp Pulaski, the base Arthur set up near Picture Rocks, a Tucson suburb, from which to launch his new mission: intercepting sex traffickers coming from the southern border. In the early mornings and after nightfall, the camp’s residents patrol on foot and in ATVs, trucks and jeeps. “If they want to come into our backyard,” Arthur declared via livestream, “we’ll give them a fight.”

Camp Pulaski consisted of a couple large tarp structures and five or six camping tents clustered almost a mile off a county road. A large map of the Sonoran Desert hung in one tent, with push pins marking the locations of additional camps Arthur said he’d established. That afternoon, I did what everyone else was doing: I sat in a folding chair, drank water and asked people why they’d come.

I sat next to a 70-year-old woman from Colorado Springs, who wore peach lipstick and cowboy boots. In between bites of Starkist tuna, she told me she’d heard about the mission on Facebook and felt a personal connection. “I had been in an abused situation with my mother,” she said. “It makes me want to be able to do something to those people.” Several people I talked to were driven by curiosity; they saw strange stories on Facebook and wanted to find the truth. There were longtime friends of Arthur’s who had found a home at his shelters, or helped with Veterans on Patrol. And there were also hardcore conspiracy theorists, who believed the “sex camp” was part of a global pedophile ring run by rich elites.

Pedophile rings allegedly involving high-profile Democrats are central to some of the conspiracy theories that have metastasized for years in right-wing online forums and social media. And the Tucson gathering wasn’t the first time this online chatter had real-world consequences. The infamous 2016 incident known as “Pizzagate” — where a fantasy about Hillary Clinton sexually abusing minors in a Washington, D.C., pizza joint prompted a man to barge into the restaurant and fire an AR-15 while looking for victims — was the fruit of the same poisonous tree.

And new branches keep growing. Some of Lewis’ acolytes were also followers of “Q,” or QAnon, a shadowy figure purporting to be a high-level government agent and leaker. The information Q posts online supports anti-Hillary Clinton, pro-Donald Trump conspiracies that often involve sex crimes against children. And while sex trafficking is a real problem in the U.S., there is as little evidence for the salacious particulars popular in these fringe forums as there was at the camp Arthur “discovered.”

  • Veterans on Patrol volunteers David Armstrong, Tim and Quoin crawl under a barbed-wire fence during a hike through the desert near a residential neighborhood outside Tucson, Arizona while searching for evidence of human trafficking. During the search exercise, members of the group crossed private property and looked for suspicious items as they passed homes and yards.

    Andrew Cullen for High Country News

After a couple days at Camp Pulaski, it started to seem as if its denizens were living in a dark version of the smartphone game Pokémon Go, in which fictional creatures populate the physical landscape players move through. A group of patrollers saw a business sign showing a human eye and believed it was the mark of a secret society. When they saw white crosses painted or laid down in the desert sand — signs experts say are used in aerial mapping — they interpreted them as the insignia of sex traffickers. One day, a man named Frank gave me a ride from Camp Pulaski to the main road, and talked about how many kids go missing every year where he’s from in West Virginia. (Most people I met at Camp Pulaski spoke on the condition that their last names or full names not be revealed.) Then he told me that Anthony Bourdain, the famous chef who had committed suicide days earlier in France, had actually been murdered. Authorities, he claimed, had covered it up. As I hopped out of his jeep, I wondered what Bourdain and missing kids in West Virginia had to do with sex traffickers in the Sonoran Desert. “If you’re really looking for the truth, I will stay here another day and will pull up as much information as I can for you,” Frank said.

Believers see these imaginary global webs of malfeasance as huge and intangible problems, like climate change. For Frank and others I met at Camp Pulaksi, Arthur’s call to arms offered a direct answer, one five-hour desert patrol at a time.

In some ways, their activities are just a twist on the long-standing vigilante tradition in which white men take up arms to try to keep migrants from crossing the border. Such contemporary volunteer “militias,” including the Minutemen, Arizona Border Recon, the Arizona State Militia, and their precursors, have operated in the Borderlands since the 1990s. Most people I spoke with at Camp Pulaski had never been part of a militia. But a similar, racially charged hostility toward immigrants permeates Arthur’s rhetoric, which is unmistakably Trumpian. The then-candidate’s 2015 statement that Mexicans are “rapists” and drug dealers echoes through VOP livestreams. Arthur says he’s not only helping ranchers keep “illegals” off their land, he’s also trying to save migrant “women and children” from Mexican coyotes. 

And like many things Trumpian, Arthur’s crusade has unleashed a novel sort of chaos. 

Rachel Krause working in her home. Krause started a Facebook page with a friend to illuminate what they felt were inaccuracies and bad behavior from the Veterans on Patrol volunteers camped in the desert a few miles from her home in Marana, Arizona.
Andrew Cullen for High Country News

IT WAS SWELTERING when I pulled into a suburb a few miles from Camp Pulaski. The houses sat in neat rows with sandy driveways and minimal landscaping, and it was a relief to walk into Rachel Krause’s cool home. An American flag was folded in a triangle displayed in the kitchen, and her laptop slept quietly on a desk near the front door.

Krause is among a couple dozen individuals in Tucson and across the country who have taken it upon themselves to monitor Arthur, debunk his claims, and provide facts and commentary online. They are vigilantes in their own right, seeing themselves not as enforcers of the law but of the truth.

Krause, 42, has brown hair and a tattoo of a snowflake on her shoulder. She is a former accountant whose husband works in the military and in local law enforcement. “I’m a liberal,” she told me. “He’s the Boy Scout, the Republican.” In early June, she and another woman started a Facebook page called “Citizens Against VOP.” Krause couldn’t stand seeing people get duped into sending gift cards and supplies to support Arthur, and she was angry that her community was the staging ground.

Within days, 300 people had liked the group. “We had no idea that the responses would be just so vast,” Krause said. She installed the Facebook page manager app on her smartphone to help her keep up, but deleted it a couple days later because she got so many notifications from commenters. She’d skipped lunch the day I visited because things were so busy online. 

“It’s better than television,” Tucson resident Sherry Peterman told me later by phone. “It’s a real-life drama.” When Peterman first heard about the sex camp on local TV, she believed Arthur’s claims. But then she started following Krause’s Facebook page and researching Veterans on Patrol, and she decided Arthur was misleading people. By then, she couldn’t look away. 

A white plastic bottle sits on top of a metal pole near the Veterans on Patrol camp. Volunteers said that a series of similar poles with jugs were a navigational guide for migrants crossing through the desert.
Andrew Cullen for High Country News

Despite the entertainment and sense of purpose that Peterman and Krause have found in debunking Arthur’s claims, it’s also been an unnerving experience. Krause has received threatening messages from his supporters, and online trolls have warned her to watch her back and posted screenshots of her house. Peterman, a senior citizen who lives alone, says she locked herself in her house after watching a particularly angry livestream. Arthur spoke of  unleashing “demons” on his opposition, something that Peterman took as a threat of physical violence. “It was enough to say, ‘Hey, lock your windows, watch your car, and goodness, don’t answer your door until you know who’s on the other side,’ ” Peterman told me. She notified the police, but they said the threat was too vague to act on.

The police did, however, take action after Arthur and several associates trespassed on private property. In June, Arthur livestreamed them walking through a ranch house, pointing out evidence of alleged criminal activity: A chair facing the window was a trafficker’s lookout, a child’s bedroom proof of abuse.

Kyle Cuttrell, who runs cattle from the property in question, told me the claims were absurd. “It’s just an unoccupied ranch house,” another rancher who manages the property, told Arthur in a July phone call that was recorded and posted online, apparently without the rancher’s permission. “I don’t want to be slandered and called a goddamn pedophile,” he said. The harder the rancher tried to reason with Arthur, the clearer it became that nothing would change his mind about what he thought he saw. On July 8, Tucson authorities arrested Arthur on a charge of trespassing, and he spent one night in jail. (He was arrested again on July 22 for the Cemex tower occupation and an unrelated assault charge.)

Overall, though, it’s been challenging for local law enforcement to figure out how to respond to Veterans on Patrol. Sgt. Tiffany Hogate of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department told me in July that she was inundated with reports of weird happenings, some of which turned out to be too vague or unsubstantiated to address. The complaints ranged from online threats to suspicious foot traffic on private land. She was tasked with monitoring VOP’s activities and had put one detective on it full-time; another deputy was helping out part-time.

Hogate and the detective spent hours some days monitoring Arthur’s livestreams, where local officials were also coming under attack. Arthur publicly called out Tucson’s mayor and sheriff on Facebook, arguing that because they don’t support his cause, they must be complicit in sex trafficking. In mid-July, he publicly thanked the secretive hacker group Anonymous for posting names, addresses and passwords for certain law enforcement employees online. That month, one of Arthur’s supporters threatened on Facebook to slit the mayor’s throat, line up local police officials “in front of a firing squad,” and put them in a wood chipper. According to local sources, the FBI began monitoring Arthur and VOP this summer. As of July, Hogate was hoping to create a joint task force of local agencies to more efficiently monitor VOP. She had submitted a request for the FBI to conduct a threat assessment, but hadn’t heard back yet. 

To add to the chaos, around the time of the break in, a contingent of the Oath Keepers, a national militia group, launched “Operation Child Shield,” and came to town to look for more sex trafficking sites. “They’re looking for a cause,” MacNab explained. They offered advice to Arthur’s followers on handling crime scene evidence, then also met with Cuttrell and other ranchers, suggesting the militia could protect their properties. “I was real nervous about meeting with those guys,” Cuttrell told me. “But they’re legit.”

Volunteer Chris Murray cooks pasta in the makeshift kitchen area of the Veterans on Patrol camp.
Andrew Cullen for High Country News

AS OF EARLY SEPTEMBER, Veterans on Patrol continues to work from Camp Pulaski; Arthur says they’ll stay for three years. They have now traveled as far south as the Mexican border, placing American flags atop hills believed to be lookouts used by migrants and cartels. The fringe group that gathered in the desert never seemed to grow to more than a few dozen, and most in Tucson never knew of its existence.

Still, it’s worth paying attention to what’s happening here. It appears to be an extreme expression of broader trends, such as the eroding trust in traditional institutions like government, science and journalism, and the increasing reliance — by people across the political spectrum — on alternative news sources and social media for information. The Rand Corporation, a global policy think tank, called this phenomenon, along with an increasing disagreement about basic facts, “truth decay” in a report earlier this year.

“I think individuals are finding only a very few people they trust, distilling into smaller communities,” said Rutgers University media studies associate professor Jack Bratich, describing a pattern that seemed evident in how Arthur’s followers and his opposition organized into factions online. “I don’t think it’s just filter bubbles, where you get only the news you want, but clusters of information communities.”

This social splintering, along with “truth decay,” increasingly pervades American life. Donald Trump rode baseless claims that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. all the way to the White House. In his first year and a half in office, the Washington Post calculated that Trump made 4,229 false or misleading claims, with some taking root in the public imagination: A Washington Post-ABC News poll last year found 48 percent of Americans believed in a “deep state,” or a conspiracy of “military, intelligence and government officials who try to secretly manipulate government policy.” This normalization of conspiratorial thinking raises questions about whether ideas incubating in fringe circles like Arthur’s may find pathways to wider audiences.

“We’re in a perfect storm right now because we have a conspiracy theory president,” says University of Miami political scientist Joseph Uscinski, adding that, “the media has to constantly cover his conspiracy rhetoric and the actions people are taking based on his rhetoric.”

Here in the desert, it seemed fortuitous that the consequences had not yet included violence. Boise State University associate professor Seth Ashley, who recently co-authored research on news literacy and conspiracy theories, pointed out that Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church in 2015, similarly projected misinformation he found online onto the world around him. “(Roof) Googled black-on-white crime and got all these links about the prevalence of black people killing white people,” Ashley said. “It’s totally false.” And yet it shaped his worldview and his actions, and nine people died. “The content and the behavior is all connected,” Ashley explained. “It’s great that we can all voice our opinions and do our own research and find our own information. But that also makes it harder than ever to sort truth from fiction.”

Veterans on Patrol founder Lewis Arthur rubs his forehead in the midday heat at the desert camp he started as a base from which to fight human trafficking in the desert near Tucson, Arizona.
Andrew Cullen for High Country News

ONE SUMMER EVENING at dusk, I visited the notorious Cemex lot, finding it empty except for an unmarked cruiser. Long shadows yawned over the dirt and asphalt. The former homeless camp was tucked into a brambly slope, invisible from the road. Nearby, a casino’s billboard promised fast cash: “Your shot at $1,000,000!” A dilapidated blue children’s pool full of gravel and old chunks of cement sat next to the locked fence. It was hard to imagine this place had provoked such distracting drama. 

“They’re out there chasing ghosts,” Scott Cutright, a veteran who spent a few weeks in one of Arthur’s shelters this year, had told me. “That’s the term you use in the military. You hear things go bump in the night, you think it’s the enemy, but in reality it’s your imagination because you’re scared or you’re amped up. You think there’s something out there, you pour resources into (it). But in reality, it’s ghosts.”

Tay Wiles is a High Country News correspondent. 


Posted in Dissemination, Information, Media

An appreciation of Kincey Potter: ‘She was just a force’ – Capital Gazette

[A touching tribute to Kincey by Pat Furgurson — with my thanks for a wonderful synthesis.]

An appreciation of Kincey Potter: ‘She was just a force’


Kincey Potter, who died Sept. 15, leaves a deep legacy for area waterways through her efforts building organizations and nurturing leaders. (Courtesy photo)

About 15 years ago the South River Federation was a fledgling group of citizens trying to organize their efforts to save their river. And the idea to create a permanent source of money to restore Anne Arundel’s watersheds was just talk.

Then Kincey Potter came along.

Over the next decade her guiding hand molded the federation into the premier watershed group in the Chesapeake Bay region with paid staff, formal offices, solid science and a deep commitment to preservation that secured funding for and implemented about $20 million worth of restoration projects in the watershed.

And Potter was a key player in shepherding the idea of a dedicated source of money for the law creating the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, and fighting the efforts to first veto the bill and then repeal it.

Then she turned to the Watershed Stewards Academy, which Sunday celebrates its 10th anniversary graduating — yet another class of trained watershed advocates — and helped grow that, too.

Later she and Bob Gallagher formed the Anne Arundel County Chapter of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters to encourage candidates and note those with strong environmental bonafides.

And she did all that in retirement from a business career after surviving the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center — and while battling the metastatic breast cancer that took her life Sept. 15 in her sleep.

She would have eschewed credit for the good works, noting she had plenty of help from others, and she did. But her steadfast example, no-nonsense approach, sense of strategic plan and personal touch, and boundless energy remains a model to those who follow.

Her legacy will be measured in swimmable, fishable waters throughout Anne Arundel County’s 12 watersheds restored by thousands of projects large and small, public awareness and her pluck.

It will also live on through a group of organizations led by a generation of leaders she molded by recognizing potential, demanding commitment and giving opportunity.

Drew Koslow was the first South Riverkeeper and the South River Federation’s first hire.

“She imprinted on us that we were to become a professional organization. She set standards, expectations of me and the board,” said Koslow, who now runs a nonprofit working with farmers on the Eastern Shore to reduce water pollution.

She led people to think big, he said. In a work session to develop a working list of potential watershed restoration projects, she pushed them to include “big, hairy, audacious” plans, to go big or go home, Koslow recalled.

“We came up with 75 prioritized projects,” he said. “Then she hired people like Erik Michelsen and Kirk Mantay to get it done.”

All 75 projects have been implemented, Koslow said, including the two most audacious: the major restoration project in the headwaters of Church Creek, and the project to restore a large section of Broad Creek near the Park and Ride lot off Harry S. Truman Parkway.

“She had an eye for talent, a capacity from her business career,” Koslow said. “And she gave us the tools, the avenue and encouragement to go out and do it.”

He continued, “She was just a force.”

Michelsen had been working for Underwood and Associates, one of the earliest companies doing streambed restoration work, and volunteering with the South River Federation when Potter tapped him to take the reins as Executive Director.

“I had not contemplated that at the time. I was not sure I was suited for it that early in my career,” he said. “But she was able to see something in me that maybe I didn’t see in myself at that point.”

With the support of staff and an engaged board of directors, “I was able to rise to the occasion as a result of her support, her mentorship and guidance.”

And after serving as executive director at SRF under Potter’s wing, he applied for and landed the job to direct the county Watershed Protection and Preservation Program.

Long before Chris Trumbauer became an Anne Arundel County councilman, he was a volunteer, then board member, at SRF. Soon he was off to become the West/Rhode Riverkeeper.

“Kincey was a real mentor to me at that time. She was able to leverage other’s talents and get people involved, giving them responsibility and amplifying individual effort,” he told The Capital when Potter won the Ellen Fraites Wagner Award from the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

“When you think about someone like Kincey passing, you tend to think about their legacy,” Trumbauer said last week. “And her legacy is going to be there for a long time in those organizations.”

Diana Muller came on board as the South Riverkeeper to form a solid scientific foundation of legally defensible scientific data to forward the federation’s arguments on behalf of the watershed.

“She had a unique ability to listen, to cut through the noise to get to (the core) of problems,” Muller said. “She was a strong female role model. She told me to get over myself and do it.”

Muller, who has been battling breast cancer this year, said she was even more in awe of the energy and leadership Potter exhibited with a more devastating prognosis. “I just went through it and realized all the energy it took. She gave me the backbone to go get it done.”

Bob Gallagher, who founded the West/Rhode Riverkeeper based on the example of the South River Federation’s stepped-up presence under Potter’s leadership, practiced law before retiring and was amazed at her work ethic.

“She was always over-prepared,” he wrote in a guest column in The Capital last week. “She always sought partnerships in the environmental and business communities. When she committed to do something, she did it, and if you committed to do something, she followed up and made sure you did it.”

When Suzanne Etgen presented the idea for the Watershed Stewards Academy to a group of leaders including Potter, she found her future mentor in doubt. “She said, ‘It sounds like a good idea but it will never work, you’ll never get people to sign up for a year of training and that work.’

“Nevertheless she became part of the founding board and served on all the committees.”

When the first year’s class of Master Watershed Stewards graduated, Potter was hooked and went to work even harder.

“The Watershed Stewards would not be what they are today without her,” Etgen said.

But as others who were touched by Potter’s hand attest, she not only grew organizations but people, too.

“I was so lucky to work under her wing. It was life-changing. She was with me for every twist and turn,” Etgen said. “Kincey had faith in the model and in me as a person. She pushed people beyond their comfort zone and was 100 percent sure you could achieve your goal.


“She leaves an amazing legacy.”


Posted in Chesapeake Bay, Civil Society, Close to Home, Media, politics | Tagged

Government 101 — Now and Then

Professor Werner Moss, the patrician head of the Government Department at William & Mary in 1960, didn’t teach it exactly the same way to both Kincey and I, but as an observation, I think he would agree with Rat.
But as a small “d” democrat, Dr. Moss also believed in direct action, and he drove a bunch of us to the Capitol in Richmond to testify against proposals to restrict the College’s admissions policies.

Posted in Fun