Legislature tackles fracking head-on

Washington, D.C., is currently attempting to inject itself into a controversial drilling process known as “frakking.” Two bills are now working their way through the U.S. Congress to open oil and gas drilling in Southwest Colorado and all over the nation to increasing scrutiny.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a widely used drilling technique that allows access to hard-to-reach oil and gas deposits. The deposits are reached by pumping liquids underground at high pressure. While the exact recipe of the liquids is unknown, it is known to contain hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals. This danger came into the local spotlight last summer, when a Durango nurse became ill after treating a worker who had spilled the fluid on his boots.

Fracking could also pose indirect dangers to local residents. Groups like the Durango-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project and San Juan Citizens Alliance suspect some of the chemicals remain in the ground and infiltrate water supplies. And while the industry maintains that the process is harmless, conservationists counter that oil and gas companies are essentially policing themselves. The issue has special significance in the San Juan Basin because nearly all of La Plata County’s active 2,600 wells have been hydraulically fractured, and many more than once.

Members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are beginning to share these concerns. Last week, companion Senate and House bills were introduced in order to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act and open fracking to public oversight. Coined the FRAC Act – Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act – the legislation would repeal a Safe Drinking Water Act exemption provided for the oil and gas industry, the only industry to have such a privilege. It would also require oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use in their hydraulic fracturing processes.

Gwen Lachelt, director of the OGAP, commented that the legislation is long overdue. “I think it’s critical that fracking be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” she said. “Currently, this is the only practice that is exempt, and it’s imperative that companies disclose the constituents of the fluid.”

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., introduced the House bill as an attempt to level the playing field. “When it comes to protecting the public’s health, it’s not unreasonable to require these companies to disclose the chemicals they are using in our communities – especially near our water sources,” she said. “Our bill closes an unconscionable Bush-Cheney loophole by requiring the oil and gas industry to follow the same rules as everyone else.”

The FRAC Act is still far from law, however, and faces a tough fight against an industry struggling with difficult economic times. “This is a drop-dead issue for the oil and gas industry,” Lachelt said. “We’re facing a tough fight against fierce opposition.”

State skier visits slump in 2008-09

The Colorado ski industry got its grades for the 2008-09 season this week. Colorado Ski Country USA announced a 5.5 percent decline in visitations over last season. However, the industry trade group is casting the numbers in a positive light, given difficult economic times.

“The travel industry as a whole was put to the test this past year,” explained Melanie Mills, president and CEO of CSCUSA. “But visitation numbers show not only the enduring value of a Colorado ski vacation, but the strong commitment our resident skiing and riding community has to our state’s signature sports.”

Compared to the five-year average, CSCUSA member resorts were down 3.9 percent. Durango Mountain Resort also bested the statewide average, dropping 4.6 percent over the previous season. Colorado skiers helped pick up the slack in what could have been a much slower ski season, according to CSCUSA.

“With all things considered, we’re very happy with where visitation is for this season,” said Mills. “Our members saw an uptick in the percent of visits from in-state skiers and riders, and others saw an uptick in overnight visits.”

Approximately 11.85 million skier visits were logged at Colorado resorts during the 2008-09 season.

FLC President tenders resignation

After giving six years and new vision to Fort Lewis College, Brad Bartel will step down as president after the coming school year. Bartel and his wife, Laura, will leave June 30, 2010, in order to pursue professional opportunities in a new setting.

“On behalf of the Fort Lewis College Board of Trustees, I want to express our gratitude to Brad and Laura for the dedication and energy they have given this college over the past five

years,” said Chair Richard Ballantine. “We’re pleased that he is committed to focusing his energies on Fort Lewis for another year while helping facilitate a smooth transition.”

Bartel’s vision for a more vibrant campus experience has reshaped Colorado’s Campus in the Sky. A new residence hall will be completed in August and a greatly expanded biology building will be ready in January, while a renovated student union building is scheduled for completion in 2010. Under his leadership, approximately $4.5 million has been raised for the student union renovation, which will result in a contemporary and environmentally sensitive center for campus activities.

In addition, a five-year strategic plan built around Bartel’s vision for Fort Lewis inspired six new academic majors as well as numerous campuswide initiatives. During his tenure, Bartel elevated the College’s admission standards to “selective,” increased student retention and graduation rates, and increased Native American enrollment.

RAAM to return to the region

Some of the finest suffering available on two wheels will pass through Durango in coming weeks. The fabled Race Across America (RAAM), a 3,000-mile cross-country cycling race, returns to the region beginning this weekend.

The 2009 race started in Oceanside, Calif., on June 17 and finishes in Annapolis, Md., around June 29. In all, successful RAAM competitors will climb more than 109,000 vertical feet, cross 14 states and pedal 3,047 miles.

Richard Rupp, the oldest solo competitor in RAAM 2008 at 66, crashed outside of Durango but finished the race. Following the ride, he responded to “the question” – Was it worth it? “The short answer is a resounding yes,” he said. “This was far more than a bike race, it looked right into the face of the meaning of life.”

Sleep-deprived and struggling racers will be in the Four Corners region after crossing California’s Coast Range and making their way through the Mojave and Painted deserts. Riders will eventually find their way to U.S. Highway 160 and drop from Hesperus into Durango. The team racers start June 20 and will follow the solo riders into Southwest Colorado next week.

The 2009 route will make for a fifth Durango stopover, though riders will not tackle “RAAM’s classic trio of mammoth passes” – Wolf Creek, Cuchara and La Veta – in 2009. From Durango, cyclists will drop into northern New Mexico before rolling into the windy plains of Kansas.

For more information or to follow the race online, log onto: www.raceacrossamerica.org.

– Will Sands



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