When my wife and I pulled into a relative’s subdivision in Frederick, Colo., after a wedding on a recent weekend, it was a surprise to suddenly find a 142-foot-tall drill rig in the backyard, parked in the narrow strip of land between there and the next subdivision to the east. It had appeared in the two days we’d been gone.

The 142 foot derrick looms over homes in Eagle Valley.
Erik Hoffner

This couple hundred grassy acres, thick with meadowlarks and bisected by a creek crowded with cattail, bulrush, willow, and raccoon tracks, sits atop the DJ Basin shale deposit. Our folks hadn’t known that when they bought the property last year, nor did they recall any useful notice that this new industrial neighbor was moving in.

We witnessed the increasing phenomenon of rigs popping up in suburban neighborhoods like mushrooms overnight. The craze of the gas rush means that companies won’t hesitate to drill wherever shale deposits lie — even if they’re under a school or a subdivision. The message to homeowners in towns big and small alike seems to be: You are on notice. The ills of fracking that were once viewed as a rural concern — contamination of air and water, noise pollution, reduced safety on roads jammed with heavy trucks — are coming to your backyard, too.

Their neighborhood was now lit 24/7 by floodlights and featured the incessant low grind of the drill’s nearly 900 HP Caterpillar engine, the clanking of roughnecks beating on pipe at 2 a.m., and regular snorts from the rig’s massive 525 HP diesel generator … loud enough that we kept the windows closed to hear the television at night.

View from the picnic pavilion: nights are flooded with light since the drilling began.
Erik HoffnerView from the picnic pavilion: nights are flooded with light since the drilling began.

We stared at this potentially toxic tower surrounded on three sides by many homes of the Eagle Valley and Raspberry Hill developments, and on the other side across a county road, by Legacy Elementary School. It seemed that the rig was only about 300 feet from the nearest homes, and about the same to a playground. Definitely too close.

But as a member of Fracking Colorado (which fights such projects in the Denver suburb of Aurora) told me by email, “The setback for wells from homes in urban areas was 350 feet. The new setback rules have increased that distance to 500 feet, but that probably was not in effect when this permit was granted. The new rules are effective as of Aug. 1, 2013. Also, when they re-enter an existing abandoned well, that was there before the homes were built, they can be closer than 350 feet to homes.”

Approximate current location of the rig.
Approximate current location of the rig.

An aerial map did seem to reveal the presence of a previous wellhead, but the difference between 300, 350, or even 500 feet seemed trivial, given the industry’s uninspiring track record on air and water pollution, plus the occasional explosion.

But then there are energy companies that think they don’t need any meaningful setback at all: Take a current frack-job just to the north. The derrick looms so near roads and powerlines that it’s potentially in direct contact with people in case of an accident, in direct violation of setback rules. Unfortunately for the managers of that project, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis owns a home across the street. His threat of a legal injunction prompted an apology from the company and a $26,000 fine from the state last week, although the drilling continues.