March 24 • 09:37 PM

Dream home now a nightmare

Fracking well, pipeline transform couple's haven into environmental mess

May 07, 2014
Editor's note: This is the second in a series highlighting information that was presented at the April 26 'Fracking in your Backyard?' seminar at the PIX sponsored by the Lapeer Land Conservancy, the Sierra Club Nepessing Group and the Flint River Watershed Coalition.

TRI-CITY AREA — When Gary Cooley retired from a successful career as a quality leader in the metallurgical lab at General Motors he never even remotely considered becoming a political activist.

But that he is—thrust center ring in the environmental arena by state legislators and a Canadian energy company called Encana Corporation.

Gary and his wife Sharon built their dream home within yards of 2,000 acres of beautiful state land in Grayling, Michigan. Built in 1996, the Cooleys' chalet is nestled in 35 wooded acres, and there's just two residents on their three-mile long gravel road.

In 2012, their dream became a nightmare as Encana embarked on a hydraulic fracturing gas well and gas pipeline project on the state land—just 59 feet away from his home.

Gary and Sharon weren't given any notice of the 'Beaver Creek HD1' gas well being constructed, not by Encana Corporation or state officials who'd sold Encana the mineral rights to the land.

Gary wasn't familiar with hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—so he had many questions about a variety of risks and concerns, not the least of which involved the partial destruction of state forest and hunting land.

"Like everything else in life when it affected us I became educated on the subject," Gary says.

It was quite an education, and one he wishes he lacked such intimate knowledge of.

From the get go Gary realized hydraulic fracturing posed risks to the environment, particularly with regard to water contamination. And then he came across the head-scratching fact about the 'Halliburton Loophole' of 2005, which exempts gas companies from the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Gas pipeline located in easement of Crawford County road just 59 feet from Cooley's dream home in Gaylord.

The fracking process involves drilling vertically and horizontally into the earth and using a high pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to fracture the mineral layers and release natural gas and oil. Large wells can require millions of gallons of water use, none of which can be recycled back into the supply because of the chemical contamination. Some of it is stored in 'injection wells,' and some of it is spread on roads as brine—as was done near Gary's property up north.

In fact, an early offer by Encana to test Gary's well—on their dime—before the fracking operation was construed as conformation that water contamination was a possibility.

They never did perform the test, however, and flat out refused to do so once they labeled Gary an "extreme environmental terrorist" for asking questions and taking photos at the Beaver Creek well site. Gary didn't stop inquiring or questioning, though. He called every state official he could, State Rep. Kevin Daley and Sen. Phil Pavlov. He called Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, and even contacted the White House.

"I was met with the typical talking points, and 'I'll get back with you, I don't have enough information at the moment,'" Gary says. "And no matter which side it was they'd ask 'but would you like to contribute to our campaign?' It didn't matter, Republican or Democrat, that was the response I'd get."

Well, not always. Sometimes he'd get no response at all. Messages were never acknowledged, calls and e-mails never returned.

Encana's fracking on the Beaver Creek site, however, progressed. For several weeks in the summer of 2013, time spent at Gary and Sharon's dream house was a very bad dream. Trucks rumbled down the road, sometimes blocking access to their driveway. Rude pipeline employees refused to move them, requiring a visit from a Crawford County Sheriff's Deputy, who was also less than cooperative believing erroneously that the pipeline was creating jobs for the community.* A misty cloud of chemical-laced water spray hung overhead and the noise was unlike anything Gary had ever experienced.

"For four weeks it was ten times worse than any assembly line shop noise I've ever heard," Gary says. "It was endless. It was a 24/7 operation."

Encana stopped fracking at the site in May, but that doesn't mean they're done.

"They can frack that well 17 more times," Gary says. "If they drill five more wells they can frack each one of them 18 times."

Since the well's construction and the huge footprint left behind from both the fracking site and the pipeline Gary's property values have decreased. He has appealed his tax assessment before the Beaver Creek Board of Review.

His yearly summer vacation at their "dream home" was mired in noise and turmoil last summer, and they've since put their retirement haven on the market.

"July 2013 consisted of Encana, flares, pipelines, removal of magnificent red pines, destruction of my personal trees, public road destruction and road blockage, and almost having a major heart attack after seeing what Encana, the logging company and major pipeline has done to my once beautiful up north property," he says.

Gary has found selling the home all but impossible—in fact even an attempt to give it away fell flat.

"Five people were interested in purchasing it but they all walked away after the environmental disclosure which is required by law," Gary says. "We even tried to give it away to the township to make it into a nature center but they refused it, not accepting it because of the potential liability issues."

Gary says he now embraces his role as "environmental activist," particularly if it helps educate homeowners and landowners of the destruction not just of the environment, but of their personal nest egg and property values.

"I want others to see the impact that gas wells and gas pipelines have on the lives of people who live near them," he says. "I want people to share this with others because information is power. We have cried, debated, wrote letters, and spent many sleepless nights worrying about what's happening to our slice of heaven."

Gary and Sharon's dream of transforming their North Branch home into a bed and breakfast and spending more time at their Grayling home has been dashed. Gary says they both pray that others won't ever encounter the fracking nightmare they've been living for the past year.

"If you do, I hope you become an 'extreme environmental terrorist' and stand up and speak out," Gary says.

*Gary talked to six pipeline workers who were installing the line along his road. Not one of them was from Michigan. As is the case with many in the industry, the workers follow the company's pipeline projects across the U.S.

Editor's note: Michigan Attorney General Bill Schutte on Tuesday announced a settlement reached with Encana Corporation regarding allegations that Encana conspired with Oklahoma based Chesapeake Energy Corp. to avoid bidding wars on mineral rights on land leases. Schutte's office said the alleged collusion is suspected of depressing the per-acre cost of leases from $1,510 in May 2010 to less than $40 in October 2010. He filed criminal charges against the companies in March. Encana pleaded no contest to one count of criminal antitrust violations and agreed to pay a $5 million fine. A misdemeanor charge has been delayed for 11 months and will be dismissed when Encana satisfies the plea agreement.

Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.
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