Colorado’s Smallest County Makes a Big Push for the Safety of Its Residents

With the signing of Senate Bill 181 in April 2019, Colorado’s local governments were given a power they’d never enjoyed before: the ability to restrict oil and gas operations within their borders, rather than be held to state guidelines. Two years later, the City and County of Broomfield is preparing to pass a set of holistic regulations for the industry — and they’re shaping up to be “the most stringent regulations in Colorado,” says Broomfield Mayor Patrick Quinn. 

Those regulations are just part of the county’s wide-ranging, safety-minded agenda. While physically the smallest county in the state, Broomfield has been the site of some of Colorado’s biggest health and safety moves by residents and public officials alike.

But the goal of making Broomfield the safest county in Colorado has brought its share of backlash — and some huge bills. In February 2020, Broomfield voted to withdraw from the Jefferson Parkway Project, an effort to build a toll road that planners say could ease traffic problems in Jeffco but community activists argue would put residents at greater risk of health ailments, since it would run right past Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons plant. Broomfield could be dunned up to $2,500,000 for that action. And after more than 300 neighbors complained about six drilling operations located in the county and run by Extraction Oil & Gas, Broomfield began issuing noise violations against the Denver-based company — which made it the target of an Extraction lawsuit demanding $500,000,000 if Broomfield wants out of its contract.

Since the City and County of Broomfield was incorporated two decades ago, its population has become increasingly progressive — and so have its politicians. Mayor Pro Tem Guyleen Castriotta calls the current Broomfield City Council the “Health and Safety Council.” Five of its members, including Quinn, were elected in November 2019, and all ran on the promise that they would address safety concerns raised by the community. The other six members of the council have often voted in line with this mission, and on several issues related to public safety — including the Jefferson Parkway and oil and gas activities — the council votes have been unanimous. 

“This council puts public safety first. That should be the criteria for any government entity, to make sure they take care of the public,” says Mike Raabe, an Arvada resident with the community group Movement to Stop the Jefferson Parkway, who asked Broomfield to withdraw from the project — and was elated when the council voted to do just that.

“They put the constituents above commercial development,” Raabe says. “Above a four-lane highway that would impact a lot of people negatively. That’s what everyone needs to understand.”

Others are less eager to discuss Broomfield’s actions. Extraction Oil & Gas, for instance, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But the company’s September 2020 lawsuit against the City and County of Broomfield gives some indication of Extraction’s opinion of councilmembers and residents alike.

“Broomfield’s latest shutdown attempt is the final straw,” the suit states. “Broomfield residents (with the City Council’s assistance) have whipped themselves into such an anti-oil-and-gas-development frenzy that shutdown is now supposedly warranted to alleviate residents’ own self-induced anxiety and stress over Extraction’s operations. … Broomfield’s government should know better.”

But Quinn says Broomfield’s government knows exactly what it’s doing.

“Our city — when we put our mind to doing something, we get it done,” he explains.

The Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge looks pristine. U.S. Fish and WIldlife

Broomfield Then

In the late 1990s, the burgeoning suburb of Broomfield was the only municipality in the state to be divided among four different counties — a source of confusion that prompted it to reorganize as the City and County of Broomfield at the end of 2001. Today the state’s 64th county encompasses about 33 square miles and is home to roughly 73,000 residents.

Lying between very Democratic Boulder and Denver, the new City and County of Broomfield was more balanced politically. Broomfield’s voter registration records from the 2000s show that throughout the decade, voters were close to evenly split between the Republican and Democratic parties. In 2008, the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office reported that of the roughly 32,000 voters registered that February, 35 percent were Republicans, 28 percent were Democrats and 37 percent were unaffiliated.

That was the year that Broomfield got involved with the Jefferson Parkway.

The parkway is a proposed toll road that would largely complete the beltway around the metro area by closing the last major gap in the loop, connecting state highways 93 and 128 with a road in the Arvada and Broomfield area. Since the 1960s, different options to finish the beltway have been put forward, but they’ve all been killed by voters or public officials…until the Jefferson Parkway.

The planned route for the toll road runs along the eastern edge of the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, which was shut down in 1989 after an investigation into allegations of criminal environmental violations led to an FBI raid on the federal facility, which had manufactured plutonium triggers. A government cleanup of the site concluded in 2005, and today much of it is open to the public as a wildlife refuge, though residual plutonium has been detected in the ground. Over the past decade, activists and nearby residents have repeatedly aired concerns that parkway construction would stir up the contamination and put neighbors at risk.

But there was little opposition to the proposal back in 2008, when the three primary jurisdictions through which the parkway would run — Arvada, Broomfield and Jefferson County — came together to form the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, or JPPHA. That May, when Broomfield City Council voted on whether to join the authority, the public hearing lasted all of fifteen minutes and saw zero residents show up to weigh in. 

Around the same time, though, organized opposition to another perceived safety hazard in Broomfield was beginning to take shape. While Rocky Flats lies just outside Broomfield’s borders, the oil and gas industry has been operating within them for decades — and for the majority of its existence as a city and county, Broomfield had essentially no say in that industry’s activities. Until the signing of SB 181, the state had full authority to oversee the operations of oil companies in Colorado.

Even so, in 2013, Broomfield voters considered a ballot measure that asked for a five-year suspension on fracking, which was becoming a very hot topic in Colorado. Residents were almost evenly split: A final recount showed that 10,361 had voted yes and 10,341 had voted no.

Although the measure narrowly passed, in September 2014 a district court ruled that the voter-approved moratorium could not be applied to existing oil and gas operations in Broomfield. And the courts further blocked the vote when they invalidated all Front Range fracking bans in 2016.

But opposition to residential drilling in Broomfield’s neighborhoods had begun to grow — and that trend would keep growing.

Broomfield Now

When a health-and-safety agenda item is on the table, it isn’t unusual for Broomfield City Council meetings to exceed five hours or even approach ten. It also isn’t unusual for councilmembers to receive hundreds of emails related to the upcoming discussion — and about a decade after the city voted to join the Jefferson Parkway effort, that’s exactly what began to happen.

Mayor Pro Tem Castriotta recalls that when she first ran for office in 2017, she had little background knowledge of the Jefferson Parkway as it related to the dubious history of Rocky Flats. So residents began getting her up to speed.

“I was like, ‘I need to find out more about this’ — and when I did, it was just alarming,” Castriotta says. “I spoke to people who used to work there [at Rocky Flats], and they told me stories of how they would incentivize workers to cover up injuries and accidents. These are firsthand reports of former workers, so I listened to all of those people.”

By 2019, groups against the Jefferson Parkway were emerging and gaining momentum. Organizations like Rocky Flats Right to Know and the Movement to Stop the Jefferson Parkway began showing up at Broomfield City Council meetings and, in striking contrast to the fifteen-minute, comment-less meeting of 2008, hundreds spoke and sent emails to formally oppose the project.

That’s partly because in 2019, the JPPHA had asked each of its three member governments for $2,500,000 in additional funding. The governments had to vote on the request, and parkway opponents in Broomfield saw it as an opportunity to pull out of the project.

Arvada voted to provide its $2,500,000, and Jefferson County allocated $400,000 that year, with plans to approve additional allocations later on. But Broomfield never approved the funds. 

“The members of their council listened to us,” says Raabe, the Arvada resident with the Movement to Stop the Jefferson Parkway. “They were willing to sit down and hear what we were saying. The message they were sending was, ‘Our residents aren’t asking for it, and it’s a public-safety concern.'”

The Broomfield council soon requested a soil study, to be overseen by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, to determine whether unsafe levels of plutonium lingered along the parkway route. The department completed the study in the middle of 2020 and said the project was unequivocally safe. While one sample from the study had tested for 264 pCi/g of plutonium — five times higher than the government-established safety limits of 50 pCi/g — when the same area was tested a second time, the reading came back within safety limits.

But by then the alarm had sounded. In February 2020, the Broomfield council voted unanimously to exit the JPPHA.

As it happens, the same mayor presided over both the hearing to enter the JPPHA and the hearing to withdraw. Quinn had served as Broomfield’s mayor from 2007 to 2013 and was elected mayor again in November 2019.

He points to several reasons for Broomfield’s reversal on the parkway.

“The question has always been how adequate the cleanup was, and once you hit the spike, it was hard to move forward,” he says. “And our town has become more progressive. The political will was gone, so when I got on council [again], I wanted to address the issue sooner than later. And we did.”

The numbers drive home Quinn’s point. While the county’s number of registered voters has increased by about 66 percent over the past thirteen years, the number of registered Republicans in 2021 is almost exactly the same as it was in 2008. As a result, the percentage of Broomfield residents who count themselves as Republicans has dropped to 23 percent today, from 35 percent in 2008.

Meanwhile, the number of registered Democrats has almost doubled, rising from about 9,000 in 2008 to almost 16,000 this year, accounting for about 30 percent of the city’s registered voters. The majority of Broomfield voters, about 45 percent, are unaffiliated.

Quinn ran for mayor again because he thought Broomfield was at a “crossroads” — specifically when it came to open space being threatened by oil facilities and other developments. 

In 2016, Extraction Oil & Gas took over oil operations in Broomfield, succeeding another company called Sovereign Oil & Gas and working with Broomfield to draft an Operator Agreement that would loosely regulate what the company could do. In late 2017, that agreement was approved by the city council in a 6-4 vote — following a hearing that went on for seven hours.

Since then, an increasing number of residents have argued that the City and County of Broomfield needs to take a tougher stance with the industry…if not ban it altogether.

Mackenzie Carignan, who lives between 3,000 and 4,000 feet from the nearest oil drilling site, has been helping lead the charge. The Broomfield resident has had numerous issues with the site; in the summer of 2019, she filed a complaint with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to report a noxious plume that she said traveled from the site into her home and made her family sick.

Carignan, neighbor Cristen Logan and Lizzie Lario, another resident, have a long list of ailments they tie to the operation: They’ve experienced chronic nosebleeds and migraines during Extraction’s operations, they say, and have been kept awake at night by the noise coming from the drilling sites.

“We weren’t supposed to hear anything, but people were being awakened in the middle of the night and feeling their house vibrating,” Lario recalls. “We’re literally advocating for the basic right to health and safety in our homes. Why is it on the citizens to suddenly become scientists and say, ‘This is what’s happening’? The burden of proof is suddenly on us.”

Logan echoes that concern. But over the years, she says, both city and state officials have brushed off complaints from her and her neighbors, calling their evidence insufficient.

“Broomfield continues to say that since there’s such a small sample size of people giving complaints, they cannot make a correlation,” Logan says. “And as a result of that, the COGCC was not looking at my complaints very seriously. I’ve had to fight. It’s taken me emailing with almost every nosebleed.”

But, she notes, Broomfield officials are finally starting to pay attention: “They are starting to look more closely at our data.”

Extraction clearly agrees that the City and County of Broomfield has been paying attention to its residents’ concerns — too much attention, according to the company’s 47-page lawsuit filed against Broomfield last fall. In the suit, Extraction accuses Broomfield of delaying administrative approvals while it asked Extraction to alter certain aspects of its operations that neighbors had complained about, particularly related to noise and odors. 

The suit also notes that after hundreds of residents complained about nighttime noise, Broomfield enacted an emergency noise ordinance, drastically lowering the noise limit that would apply to Extraction’s operations — from 65 dBA to 40 dBA, or, as described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from the noise level of a normal conversation to the hum of a refrigerator. Broomfield then issued multiple citations when Extraction did not comply.

Extraction is suing for damages and a court order to prevent Broomfield from making further attempts to regulate the project.

“The proper and legal way to shut down Extraction would be to buy out the Operator Agreement, which would mean negotiating with Extraction and writing a check on the order of $500 million to compensate Extraction,” the lawsuit states. “Broomfield is a wealthy city and county. If its residents want to shut down Extraction that badly, they should vote to approve the necessary taxes, raise the money, and negotiate to buy out the Operator Agreement, rather than direct Broomfield’s government [to] use its police and regulatory powers in abject bad faith to chase Extraction out of town.”

In the filing, Extraction notes that one Broomfield official said the city wanted to shut down the project, which the suit calls an “extraordinary admission.”

But Castriotta suggests that such comments are said casually, and should have no bearing on the case.

“We’re fighting residential fracking. This goes along with our health-and-safety mission,” she explains. “We’re consistent.”

Broomfield in the Future

Extraction’s lawsuit is still working its way through the courts. The company recently restructured after filing for bankruptcy, and Quinn says that Broomfield has been informed that Extraction plans to proceed with its operations in the city and county this year.

“We will continue to enforce our noise ordinances everywhere we can, and health and safety of our citizens will be the number-one priority,” Quinn says. “We have concerns about Extraction that they know about and the courts know about. That being said, Extraction has a [Memorandum of Understanding]. If they want to follow that, then they’ll continue drilling.”

In the meantime, Broomfield has been taking advantage of the power it was given by SB 181. The courts have ruled that the law does not apply to facilities that began operating before the bill was signed into law and can only regulate future activities. In May 2020, the city passed an ordinance requiring any future oil wells to be set back 2,000 feet from nearby properties — a major increase over the state’s 500-foot requirement. The ordinance also limited the zoning districts in which future facilities can be built.

Now the city is finishing up a more expansive set of regulations for the oil and gas industry. The new regulations would give the city power to deny permit applications for future facilities if councilmembers deem that a project will negatively impact public safety. They would also require the city to maximize emergency-preparedness systems at facilities and afford the city extra financial protections in their dealings with oil and gas companies. The first reading of the final regulations will occur on April 27, with the full Broomfield City Council expected to adopt them on May 11.

Logan hopes that Broomfield doesn’t stop there. She wants officials to look at how they can protect residents from the hazards of current facilities as well as future ones.

“I’m begging for elected officials to take this seriously,” she says. “Why are we not looking at existing oil and gas infrastructure? If 181 does not give them the ability to do that, then I think they need to get back to work. They need to start looking at some new laws.”

While the city focuses on regulating future oil and gas developments, it’s still trying to extricate itself from its past commitment to the Jefferson Parkway. According to a letter written by Broomfield’s attorney, Arvada and Jeffco have asked the city and county for the $2,500,000 it never approved and the right-of-way for the parkway route, so the road can run through Broomfield as designed.

Broomfield refused. Because Broomfield never approved the funds, it was not obligated to pay them, the attorney argued, adding that JPPHA contracts do not require Broomfield to hand over the right-of-way. 

Broomfield has now requested that the three entities in the JPPHA meet to discuss the withdrawal; that meeting has yet to be scheduled. 

“Broomfield took a businesslike approach in its withdrawal, and their reaction didn’t lead to constructive discussions,” Quinn says. “I’m hoping right now, those constructive discussions are occurring.”

Broomfield residents are certainly having plenty of safety-first discussions — and officials are listening.

“Public awareness tends to drive public policy,” concludes Broomfield City Manager Jennifer Hoffman. “Our public is engaged at city council meetings; they are engaged at the voter booths. And in our council, in our staff, there is a deep abiding love for our community. Our actions reflect that.”

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