Cattle rancher concerned that increased dust from oil and gas traffic is killing his livestock
May 27, 2014
Grover-area rancher Jim Sturrock is no stranger to the unfortunate hands Mother Nature often deals to those in the cattle business: boiling hot summers, relentlessly bitter winters, hungry predators looking to make meals of his animals.
But in the past few years, it's been a man-made burden — one over which he would ultimately find himself in court — that Sturrock says has made it more difficult to keep his cattle alive: fugitive dust kicked up by the many wheels of oil and gas traffic. He said the dust poses a health hazard to his animals and a safety hazard to drivers along the unpaved county road as it settles in clouds along his property, but it has yet to be properly addressed.
Sturrock views dust issues as just one example of ways in which oil and gas and agriculture — Weld County's two most lucrative industries — collide in a negative way. But in his mind, the solution won't come from about pitting one industry against another; it'll come from working together to ensure that both industries can thrive.
"They want to furnish our fuel," he said. "I want to furnish our food."
'Cloud of dust'
Sturrock, whose 4,000-acre property runs along Weld County Road 122, said he started to notice a sharp uptick in truck traffic in the late summer of 2012, and he immediately started seeing health issues in his calves as the dust settled along the encampment on his property.
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Sturrock said he lost nearly 20 percent of this year's calves, some due to what he believes was dust pneumonia, and though he knows other factors contributed to that loss, he said the dust played a significant role. He also had to treat many of his animals for eye problems, and some cows and calves lost their sight.
He said the dust also poses a hazard to drivers passing WCR 122.
"You're just in a cloud of dust," he said. "The driver coming at you is just as blind as you are."
After a local attorney told him Weld County has no codes that would legally require the county or oil and gas companies to mitigate the dust, Sturrock went to the county for help, writing to the director of public works and asking for some sort of dust control measure or to post a reduced speed limit along that stretch. His request brought about neither action.
"They have the right and they've maintained the right to maintain that road," Sturrock said. "(Dust control), to me, is part of maintenance."
A jury trial
Sturrock, who's owned the land for nearly 20 years, said he requested a meeting the following spring with Janet Lundquist, the county's traffic engineer and support services team leader, and Curtis Hall, the county's grading supervisor. He presented his request for help again, and this time, the county agreed to do a traffic count to determine if that roadway meets a 200-vehilce-per-day threshold that would require the county to step in.
Lundquist said the county conducted the traffic count in June of last year, finding the number of vehicles was 182 and was well enough below their threshold to intervene. She said 54 percent of the vehicles were trucks, a higher average than most roads but still not high enough for the county to mitigate dust.
Sturrock said while the county denied his request for dust mitigation, workers still laid magnesium chloride, a chemical used to control dust, along WCR 122, telling him it was for another purpose. Sturrock said he was satisfied, regardless of the county's reason.
But less than a month after laying the chemical, Sturrock watched on a September day as a road grader came along. Sturrock, worried that the grading would undo all of the magnesium chloride's affect, stopped the driver to ask him if he could avoid grading that stretch for a while.
Ultimately, Sturrock said he parked his truck somewhat in front of the grader as he went to call the driver's boss and ask if the road could be skipped for now. Sturrock went back out, moved his vehicle, and the driver ultimately graded the road anyway.
Sturrock said the dust settled back in, and he watched several more calves develop lung problems.
On the day that Sturrock had stopped the road grader, Weld County deputy showed up to Sturrock's residence, serving him with a summons to appear in court. He was accused of illegally preventing the driver from grading the road, and he would be charged with hindering transportation, a misdemeanor offense.
"I thought that was a little excessive," he said.
Sturrock pleaded not guilty to the charges, and requested a trial. In May, a jury of six acquitted him of the charge.
"To me the trial was a distraction," Sturrock said. "The real issue is coming up with a solution to the dust."
Stephen Reynolds, a Colorado State University professor who holds a doctorate in environmental health, has been working with others to determine at which levels fugitive dust becomes a danger to human health. He said those who work in dusty conditions, especially those in confined spaces like feed yards and dairies, could be more susceptible to respiratory illnesses.
"Most of the problem is related to getting enough dust in the lung," he said. "You just get enough in there, and it starts to overwhelm your immune system."
Reynolds focuses on the effects on humans, and his research group has already determined exposure guidelines for workers, but he said the effects dust has on livestock are comparable.
Franklyn Garry, a veterinarian with CSU's Veterinary Extension, said one of the most common health concerns in cattle — especially young ones — is respiratory illness. He said dust exposure can lead to dust pneumonia, a lung disease that is not necessarily directly caused by particulates but which often affects animals in dusty conditions.
Like Reynolds, Garry explained that the dust particles accumulate in the respiratory system and often overwhelm the animal's ability to cough or sneeze them out. Garry said simple dust can overload the immune system and make the animal more susceptible to disease, especially when other factors like heat or cold are already weighing on the animal. Dust that also contains organic matter or chemicals can directly cause infections or other illnesses, Garry said.
He added that the same is true for eye issues in cattle. Simple dust can cause irritation and swelling, and dust with organic matter can cause infections like Pink Eye.
"If you put all of those risk factors together, then the likelihood of disease goes up substantially," Garry said.
Dust in Weld County
Lundquist said the county's Department of Public Works has not noticed an increase in dust complaints as oil and gas activity has increased over the last few years, but she knows that many residents are seeing a great deal more truck traffic on the roads.
"We have roadways that started out at maybe 20 trips per day, and now it's more like 100," she said. "You can understand why citizens are noticing a drastic increase in traffic, even though it's not enough to meet the requirement (for dust mitigation) that we have through the state or our own code."
She said the public works office fields a number of dust complaints — 139 last year, 29 so far this year —mostly over the hot, dry months of summer. If the traffic count on a particular stretch of county road is more than three years old when a resident complains, Lundquist said she'll set up a new traffic count, just as she did in Sturrock's case.
In order for the county to take any dust mitigation action she said there have to be at least 200 vehicles per day for at least a three-month period. The county's first action would be magnesium chloride. With a much higher traffic count, around 400 to 450 vehicles per day, Lundquist said the county will consider a chip seal, and at a much, much higher count, the county would look into paving the road.
Those traffic count thresholds are determined according to Colorado's clean-air requirements, Lundquist said. Semi-trucks and sedans alike count for one vehicle, although Lundquist said higher truck percentages are taken into account.
Lundquist said in many case when the county isn't required to mitigate dust, oil and gas companies will step in and lay magnesium chloride or water down roadways.
"We get a lot of voluntary action out of them," she said.
She said her office refers residents to oil and gas companies often, and the companies are willing to take action in order to be "good neighbors."
"In a lot of cases, we'll help (residents) identify maybe a heavier user in that area," she said. "We will also contact them on (the resident's) behalf."
As a last resort, Lundquist said residents have the option of paying for magnesium chloride themselves. The county contracts with several companies and will refer residents to them since they're already approved to do work in the county.
GMCO Corporation President Jeremy Henderson, whose Rifle-based road construction company is one on Weld's list of approved providers, said his company will charge 70 cents per gallon for magnesium chloride, which in the Greeley area would likely equate to somewhere aroud $5,000 per mile before taxes. He said outside the immediate area, the price goes up.
The magnesium chloride is usually affected for the entire year, but heavily traveled roadways may require two applications, Henderson said.
Lundquist said her office relies on residents to report road issues, including the presence of fugitive dust.
"We don't want people to feel like they have no options," she said.
Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, said his organization has heard from a few ranchers who are concerned about dust issues.
"We have heard more so through members that they are dealing with dust issues this way in areas of increased oil and gas activity," he wrote in an emailed response.
Fankhauser said it's normally those ranchers with cattle in confined spaces like corrals or feed yards that are concerned about health issues.
For members of his organization, the most effective solution to dust issues has been working with oil and gas companies.
"In the cases where road dust has been a problem, it has been our experience through members that the oil and gas industry has worked with producers to mitigate these issues, when approached," he wrote. "Dust can certainly be an issue and should be addressed, we encourage producers to reach out to the exploration companies and request mitigation to decrease dust production on the roads. If our members like, we can assist with this issue."
Doug Flanders, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said across the board, oil and gas companies are willing to work with those who share the same land. He said Weld has been a shining example of a county that forges communication between landowners and companies when issues like fugitive dust arise.
"Weld County looks for the cooperative way to fix and solve issues by working with everyone together but also by holding industry accountable for everything that we do," he said. "When we say we're going to mitigate this issue and we don't, they'll come down hard on us."
While companies are only required by law to mitigate dust on their sites, not on roadways, Flanders said most companies will find ways to address fugitive dust from trucks in an effort to maintain a good relationship with the county and with residents.
"We want to work with all of our neighbors and friends to make sure we don't' have these issues and that we can mitigate them in the best possible way."
Sturrock said he hasn't yet contacted any companies directly, but he's more than willing to work through the fugitive dust issue with all parties involved.
"It's an issue that if we put our heads together, it can be resolved," Sturrock said. "Let's all step up to the plate instead of point the finger at any one person any one certain entity." ❖