Aurora superfund site at heart of some anti-fracking ballot proposals

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A sign at the perimeter of the Lowry Landfill Superfund site warns of possible risk of entering the site.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | A statewide anti-fracking group looked to Aurora when crafting more efforts to keep fossil fuel drilling away from homes and schools — and now, Superfund sites.

Activist group Colorado Rising submitted six possible ballot initiatives to the Secretary of State’s office earlier this week. Voters could decide in November on one these six proposals. All are variations of Colorado Rising’s earlier ballot initiative to increase drilling setbacks in 2018, Proposition 112, which voters turned down by a wide margin.

The next year, however, Senate Bill 181 was passed into law, ceding regulation to local governments, now able to increase setback distances and more.

Colorado Rising cites some research drawing a link between living near drilling operations and increased birth defects and cancer. The activists aim to create bigger buffers between drilling and homes, schools and more.

Currently, the statewide setback between drilling and homes is 500 feet, but local governments, such as Aurora and other counties or municipalities, have the power to increase that distance.

Now, Colorado Rising wants to protect Superfund sites from drilling — a move partially inspired by drilling around the Lowry Landfill Superfund site in Aurora, said spokeswoman Anne Lee Foster.

The 507-acre Superfund site contained about 138 million gallons of toxic waste dumped there for decades, although some has leaked out in what scientists call a “plume.” Activists fear more drilling could disrupt the area geology and release waste.

Aurora Councilwoman Nicole Johnston, who represents the region near the Lowry Landfill, said she supports the decision to include Superfund sites in the list of possible ballot initiatives. Of the six proposed initiatives, four would create a 2,500-foot buffer zone between well pads and Superfund sites.

A Sentinel review did not find active oil and gas wells within the proposed buffer zone from the Lowry Landfill border.

The closet oil and gas well is about 2 miles away from the site boundary, according to Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission data. However, the buffer zone proposals would still allow for horizontal drilling underneath the Lowry Landfill surface and toxic waste if the well was drilled outside the buffer.

But Johnston said there has likely been drilling closer to the site boundary and subterranean toxic waste plume. She doesn’t preclude the possibility of more.

“There is still going to be applications for development near the plume at Murphy Creek,” Johnston said, adding, of the issue: “…it is still definitely relevant.”

It’s unclear whether drilling has or would disrupt the Lowry Landfill toxic waste.

Oil and gas operators in the Denver Julesburg shale formation typically drill between 5,500 and 8,500 feet below the surface. The site’s dumping pits are covered with soil near the surface  — although some scientists say more testing is required to ensure the waste isn’t leaking into a network of aquifers.

Residents of Superior voiced similar concerns last year when an oil and gas operator proposed dozens of drilling sites underneath the Rocky Flats Superfund site. The operator, Highlands Natural Resources Corporation, pulled the plans after the public uproar. U.S. Congressman Joe Neguse (D-Boulder) introduced a federal ban on drilling on or below Superfund sites. That bill has not moved past a committee assignment in July.

Voters could decide the fate of a Colorado Rising proposal in November if the Colorado Secretary of State’s office approves a ballot initiative.

Foster told the Denver Post this week that if Colorado Rising chooses to pursue any of the six ballot proposals, each would require about 125,000 voters signatures to make the ballot.