EDITORIAL: Health threats posed by fracking and drilling still threaten residents and the industry alike

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Colorado’s growing oil and gas industry is not off the hook just because voters decisively turned back a measure that would significantly increase setbacks from drilling operations and homes, schools and more.

The problem Proposition 112 would have unsuccessfully addressed is still a serious problem.

The measure sought to increase the mandatory setback places like homes and schools must be from petroleum oil and fracking sites to 2,500 feet — five times farther than it is in some cases.

During the expensive, hyperbolic debate on the measure, critics of the increased setback focused on the economic effects a law would have that was created to protect public health.

It was diversionary tactic that drew away public attention from the controversy over what effect increased petroleum drilling, fracking and pumping have on the environment and health of people near and far from petroleum extraction operations.

It is indisputable that the drilling, pumping and hauling associated with petroleum production is dangerous to human health and the environment. What’s unclear is under what proximity and under what conditions.

Twenty heavy trucks a day on a dirt road on the plains aren’t nearly as annoying or dangerous as the same trucks in a small canyon filled with homes and wildlife.

You don’t have to be a petroleum engineer to see that one size does not, and cannot, fit all scenarios for accommodating this heavy industry. It’s an industry that carries very real and very serious health risks.

Those health risks didn’t go away with the failed ballot measure.

It doesn’t matter how many jobs or billions of dollars are at stake if the current setback of 500 feet for most homes is putting the lives of thousands of Colorado residents at risk.

In some cases, the existing setback limits between a home and a fracking site may keep residents safe from toxic exposures or from their home exploding.

But in a 2017 incident in Firestone, that wasn’t the case. There, a house exploded and two residents were killed because flammable gas had unknowingly leached into a nearby house from an uncapped underground pipe, causing the deadly explosion. The well itself was less than 200 feet from the house, but beyond the distance required by city officials. The well was created many years before homes in the area began springing up.

Explosions aren’t the only worry for residents who are 500 feet away from a rig. Much of the public is concerned with  the dangers associated with exposure to toxins released into the air or water during the drilling, fracking and extraction processes.

The distance that ensures safety is not only unclear, it’s not universal. Proximity is only one aspect of a complicated issue.

State lawmakers a must create a system that allows for local input and control over this highly technical and potentially dangerous industry. That way, the individual circumstances can be used to determine what’s a safe distance and under what conditions. Some petroleum companies have shown a willingness to accommodate this need without legislation, but the public can rest assured only after there are legal requirements.

If they don’t, another Proposition 112 will be back. And next time, the public may not be nearly as level-headed as state lawmakers might be.

Only additional reputable research and flexible set-back regulations, allowing for local control, can keep state residents and the petroleum industry healthy.