Earlier this year, I wrote about Hector Zertuche, the 70-year-old deputy sheriff of Alice, Texas, and the Andy Griffith of environmental sleuthing. Nobody told Zertuche to go after fracking-related crimes; his investigations were an extension of his own curiosity and, then, annoyance that state regulators weren’t doing anything with the information that he gathered. Ultimately, Zertuche went to the archives and dug up some 100-year-old state laws that he was able to use to prosecute polluters anyway.
Now, a new study by Tara Opsal and Tara O′Connor Shelley — two sociologists at Colorado State — suggests that the Hector Zertuches of this world are pretty rare in the landscape of the fracking boom. Both researchers specialize in something called “green criminology” — more or less, how societies respond to environmental crimes. In this study, Opsal and O’Connor Shelley downloaded 2,444 individual oil- and gas-related complaints from a database maintained by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). They began trying to contact the original people who had submitted the complaints (not all included contact information), and managed to set up interviews with 65 of them, all over the state.
What they found were a whole lot of frustrated people. Many of them didn’t have a problem with fracking, per se, but did feel that the state regulators who had responded to their complaints had not done a solid job of investigating them.
Often, participants said the official records misrepresented their experiences. One couple, “Rick and Jenni,” said they’d come home to find their cows refusing to drink from a water tank because the water had become milky white. Oil and gas development had just begun nearby, so they contacted the COGCC to complain. A representative hydrologist came out and acknowledged a visible problem, but the report reads as though the hydrologist wasn’t concerned about it.
Rick and Jenni were told that the changes they saw in their well water — which they described as looking milky or muddy, sometimes effervescent or oily, and smelling like rotten eggs, sulfur or hydrocarbons — were caused by naturally occurring methane or a failure to do proper maintenance on their well.
As studies go, this isn’t perfect — 65 interviews out of 2,444 complaints only works if that 65 is a representative sample, and this group appears to have been self-selecting, at least in part. Odds are high that the 65 who responded to Opsal and O’Connor Shelley’s requests for interviews had more of an axe to grind than the people who never responded to them. It’s entirely possible that some of those other 2,379 complaints were resolved in a way that made the complaint-filers feel totally listened-to and taken care of by Colorado’s environmental regulators. The study itself is — like a lot of academic research — trapped behind a $40 paywall charge.
What it does show is that the state of environmental crime reporting and follow-up in Colorado isn’t universally awesome — and that some would-be whistleblowers are left navigating an enforcement system that’s more of a cynical film noir than The Andy Griffith Show. Allegations like this are worth investigating further.