This interview was conducted by Marisa Granados on 11 May 2019. Aletta Brady, Alex Cohen, and Talia Fox also contributed to the production of this story.
Patricia Nelson is a Latinx mom who is fighting against environmental racism & the oil and gas industry for her son’s health in Greeley, Colorado. This is her story:
“My name is Patricia Nelson, and I am a native of Greeley, Colorado. I was born and raised here, and I grew up in this neighborhood. I live 1.1 miles from Bella Romero Academy 4-8 Campus.
For most of my life, I wasn’t really aware of what was happening in Colorado when it comes to fracking. I thought that all of those tan battery tanks that you see everywhere were agricultural storage for grains or water or something. I had no idea. Then in February of 2017, I get a call from a friend of mine asking me if I wanted to come to this meeting here at the school. She pretty much said ‘Hey, you should go to this because it’s about your kid’s school.’ So I went to this meeting and there were three different people presenting. The first was Dr. Lisa McKenzie, who was presenting her findings about the adverse health effects of living in close proximity to densely fracked areas. I was sitting there listening to all of the information, which was a lot to take in. It's very difficult to pinpoint the causation, but you can find the correlation and essentially she concluded when there is more fracking in one area, there are higher infant mortality rates, more cases of asthma, and more cases of leukemia in children. Later, I learned that in Weld County, we have higher infant mortality rates than the surrounding counties and that Weld County has about 40% of all the producing wells in the state.
Originally this fracking project was supposed to be behind a different school in Greeley. It would have been a much larger project, but it would have been slightly further away from the school. It was going to be called the South Greeley Project. What we focus on in our lawsuit is the fact that the demographics at these two schools do not match at all. At the other school, Frontier Academy, about 78% of the kids are white. Here, at Bella Romero, 89% of the kids are Hispanic and most of the kids are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The demographics are literally black and white.
Long story short, what happened with the South Greeley Project was that there was a group of moms that found out about it. With the help of Weld Air & Water, they started writing letters and going to meetings. They were very, very upset that they were going to put this massive project right behind their kids’ school and so they shut it down.
One of the biggest philosophies of our school is that we are one family. I take that literally, because I have literal family that comes to this school, but I also take it very seriously in the sense that we care for each other like family. Highway 85 separates this side of the town from the rest of the town. In this area, we have Bella Romero and Salido de Sol, and these are essentially the only two schools on this side of the highway. When we were collecting signatures, people were telling me ‘Well, if you don’t like it, then move your kid somewhere else.’ Just hearing that statement, I was thinking, I can send my kid to another school, I can just pick him up, take him to a school in Windsor. My sister can’t do that because she has five kids and she commutes every day to Denver. There is no way she would be able to pack up her kids and move them to a different school. That’s the reality for a lot of the families here; they cant just pick up and move.
What the developers did for the South Greeley Project but not for the project at Bella Romero was an alternative site analysis. One of the alternate sites they analyzed as a pad option for the South Greeley Project was not a good alternate location because it was 2,000 feet from a playground. There was another one that was 1,050 feet from the nearest church. This project at Bella Romero is 685 feet from the playground and 1,200 feet from the school. So it was not okay to put a project at the South Greeley school, but it’s perfectly fine to put it at this school, even though there were no alternate sites looked at for this project.
Greeley, Colorado is in Weld County, which has produced 89% of all crude oil and 1/3 of all natural gas production in Colorado. Since the beginning of 2017, over three hundred oil and gas location assessments have been performed in Weld County alone (Weld Government).
In November 2018, a ballot initiative, Proposition 112, was voted on. If passed, this statute would have required any new oil and gas development in the state of Colorado to be set back 2,500 feet from any structures intended for human use or any areas designated as “vulnerable.” It did not pass. (Ballotpedia)
In December 2017, an oil and gas development site in Windsor, Colorado exploded. One worker was badly burned. More than 350 homes were within a mile of the site and were at risk for property damage as well as risk of life (KUNC).
During that meeting in 2017, I had no idea about the wells until the presenters were explaining to us that they were putting together a complaint to file a formal lawsuit against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) for the approval of 24 wells behind Bella Romero. I remember blurting out, ‘Who is paying these people to approve the permits?’ It just made no sense to me, coming in completely blind, that they would put an industrial site next to a school. At the end of the presentation I spoke to Therese Gilbert, a teacher at Heath Middle School and founding member of Weld Air & Water. She told me that they needed a parent of a student at Bella Romero to fight the project. She said that previously, any time they would try to convince or talk to someone, that person would be all for it, but once they attorney would start calling, they would not respond. So I told her, ‘I’m your girl, I’ll be the mom. This is completely unacceptable. This can’t happen.’ In April of 2017, the formal complaint was filed against the COGCC.
Growing up, my parents pretty much made us work in the fields and in agriculture, where a lot of undocumented people work. I’m a brown Latina and I was a teenager at that time. I’ve never been treated so horribly in my life as when people thought I was undocumented. I feel standing up for people is my duty because I have the privilege and I was lucky enough to be born in the United States. I have the privilege to be able to speak out and say what I want without fear. One of the biggest things here in our community is that a lot of our families are mixed status so we have people that are afraid to speak out. This industry, they are taking advantage of that.
So since April of 2017, I have been a parent plaintiff for the case against the COGCC for the approval of their permits to frack behind Bella Romero. There are four groups involved: Weld Air and Water, Weld Women, Sierra Club, and the NAACP. I am a part of the NAACP. The name that was given to us was Public Health Advocates. Our goal generally is to have the permits vacated. We are essentially saying that the approval of the permits is wrong and that they should not have been granted these permits to begin with. We are getting help from the law clinic at Denver University, so all of our attorneys are student attorneys. They do have advisors who are actual attorneys, but it has been an interesting experience because pretty much every year we have new student attorneys. It’s helpful in the sense that we have a fresh set of eyes and they have different perspectives on things. For the most part, I think our attorneys have done a really good job.
On Tuesday, we have court at the Colorado Appeals Court. The complaint was filed in 2017, but we didn’t have a date in court until that December. That first day in court was actually really eerie and strange because that same day was the day that the Windsor blew up. Since that date, we have filed a lot of motions to try and get them to stop anything here, but those have all been unsuccessful. The reality of it is that these judges have to be dispassionate and unbiased and they have to interpret the law and that’s all they can do. When we started the process for the appeals court a couple of months ago, and filed a motion to have an expedited date in court, it was really lucky that the judge granted it.
People of color are exposed to more pollution than white people. In 2000, people of color experienced 40% higher pollution exposure, and, in 2010, people of color experienced 37% higher pollution exposure than white people in the United States (University of Washington News).
68% of Hispanic people live in areas that do not meet the federal government's air quality standard, compared to 58% of white people (Moms Clean Air Force).
In this area, not only do we have 80% of the state’s production of oil and gas, but we also have multiple feedlots on the outskirts of town, and we have a meat packing plant as well. We know that methane is a big problem here too, so it’s just a melting pot of pollution really. We have our rivers, but our rivers don’t run as high as they used to and when they do run high, they overflow. In 2015 when the Poudre River flooded, my sister who lives in La Salle, out east, couldn’t come into town. A lot of people around here were freaking out because they had horses and they had to find places to put the horses.
The extreme weather that we have been experiencing is causing issues for agriculture and for a lot of industries in general, because when it rains or snows too much, people can't work. Some people can be okay with not working for a couple of days, but for people living paycheck-to-paycheck, missing one or two days of work is a lot. I think that climate change is happening slowly enough that people don’t want to see it, but the fact of the matter is that it is happening, and it’s impacting people directly.
I know a lot of kids around here have asthma. One of my nieces, in the summer, if she’s outside too much, she gets nosebleeds. My other sister’s kids were getting nosebleeds as well. Last summer, my kid would just cough all summer long and that’s never happened. His dad has been getting sick a lot. And me personally, just randomly my eyes will start burning. At first I thought maybe it was because I wear makeup and my makeup was getting in my eyes, but it’s happened when I don’t have any makeup on too—little things like that. It’s not a lot to really spike any concern, but it happens a lot around here. Growing up we were always sent outside, my parents would always be like ‘go play outside.’ Back then, granted, we didn’t really always enjoy it, but now its like, I just wish I could be a little kid and go play outside. Now I don’t even want my kids to be outside.
The fracking industry has been able to blend in and move into the community slowly. But this project is just like, ‘We are going to do this because we can do this now.’ That’s my take on it. The reality of it is that there are so many community members that work in the oil and gas industry, that it makes it hard to speak against the industry to anyone. There are a lot of people that care about this, even though they may not be vocal about it. A lot of people are very fearful of the explosions and disasters that the industry refers to as accidents or anomalies. People are literally dying in their homes because of this industry. I feel that if this lawsuit were to be successful, it would give people a little bit of hope and that would calm some of their fears. An industry should not have as much stronghold as the fracking industry has here in Colorado.
An Update on Patricia’s Fight
On May 14th, Public Health Advocates went to court against the COGCC. The Colorado Appeals court upheld the decision of the lower court and deemed these fracking permits behind Bella Romero legal. On August 2nd, Patricia and Public Health Advocates will find out if this case will be heading to the Colorado Supreme Court. The silver lining for Patricia and her fellow plaintiffs was that the appeals court found that citizen groups have legal standing to bring permits for judicial review, something that will change the COGCC’s outlook on their ability to frack anywhere and everywhere.
First, we definitely need to get behind candidates that are going to support renewables, that are going to help us make just transitions from fossil fuel industries to renewable energy when it comes to jobs. Then, we need to get people to raise awareness. I think those things are key in helping to change the narrative, because we don’t have a lot of time. Regardless of what the White House is saying and what their puppets are saying, we don’t have time to just let things continue the way that they are going right now. I definitely believe that climate change is real and that requires a lot of action. It’s going to be hard work, and people just need to get out and mobilize and organize. Even if you live somewhere where you don’t feel like people are going to want to change, there are going to be other people in your community that are feeling the same way that you are feeling, you just need to find them. That’s what’s happening here where I live. Climate change is becoming a bipartisan issue because people are starting to become really afraid for what their kids’ futures are going to be like.
I get a lot of inspiration from the younger kids in this whole climate movement because like they say, it comes from the mouth of babes. It comes from little kids really serious about this, really trying to push for change. Some of them can’t vote, but I can vote, and I can collect other people and we can push them to vote.
My motivation is my son. He knows what’s going on because he goes to meetings with me, and he’s with me all of the time. I always get really emotional about this, and he asked me one day, ‘If something happens at the school, will me and my friends be ok?’ I’m trying, but no one can guarantee the safety of the kids in the school. My kid is in that school, and my nieces and nephews are too, and no one can guarantee their safety. That’s one of my biggest motivations—being able to tell them that I tried to do everything that I could to stop this from happening. I get the sense from a lot of people in the community, especially from other people of color, that they don’t really feel that they can speak out. It’s like you are already defeated before you begin.
I want people to know that as of this date, May 11, 2019, the district and the superintendent still stand by their statement that this project is perfectly safe. I want people to know that the administration does not feel like what is happening is wrong. I think that a lot of the kids at the school do know what’s going on because they see it, but they may not necessarily have the tools to be able to do something about it. I really hope that they know that there are people out here fighting for them.”
TAKE ACTION—Here’s how you can support Patricia and her work:
Share Patricia’s story to amplify her voice.
Want to support Patricia’s fight against fracking at Bella Romero? Check out Colorado Rising to learn how you can volunteer and donate.
Talk to people about what’s going on. Engage with conversations with your friends about topics that you are passionate about. Reach out to your local representatives—ask about their legislation, ask about how their work is going to affect the community. Don't forget to reach out to those elected officials you feel are doing well.
Take care of yourself. It is easy to be overwhelmed by everything that is happening in the world. Give yourself the opportunity to process those feelings and take a minute to step back to catch your breath.