DENVER — When the worst of the flooding began for Weld County last week, Cliff Willmeng, on a hunch, took his 2003 Subaru and drove east.
The county’s roads and bridges had begun to disintegrate under the might of the historic floodwaters, to the point that Willmeng, an environmental activist, had trouble navigating. Yet what his gut had told him to look for had been, as he put it, “unfortunately easy to find.”
What Willmeng saw, and also photographed, was the drowning of Weld County’s extensive oil and gas drilling operations — hundreds of fracking wells that were underwater, and an unknown number of storage tanks and other industrial facilities assaulted by the untamed waters.
“The farther east I went, the more you would see the condensate tanks tilted, lifted off-anchor,” Willmeng said. And on hearing that those tanks have since been responsible for dumping thousands of gallons of oil, he said, “What we’re finding now is confirming our worst fears.”
In Colorado, the disaster that has throttled the state — claiming as many as nine lives so far and destroying 1,800 homes while damaging 16,000 others — has taken civilization’s attempts to harness the land and turned frontier living into a nightmare. The floods, which arrived as a single malady of rain and rivers, have since been divided into environmental and human tragedies separated by the line that joins Weld and Larimer counties.
Once-picturesque Rocky Mountain hideaways in Larimer County have become communities shut in by still-raging waters and wiped-out access roads. It is where the disaster’s human toll was still unfolding.
Larimer County officials announced Thursday they now believe a 46-year-old man was swept away with his cabin in the mountain town of Drake. His death would bring the expected toll to nine across the state since the flooding began last week, with hundreds more people still missing.
And officials are worried the seclusion that made such mountain communities so romantic could continue to present life-and-death threats to the scores of residents who are choosing to stay behind: at least 73 people in Pinewood Springs and 120 more in Storm Mountain, according to the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office.
“Beyond me, the road is closed,” said Joe Dion, 70, a Storm Mountain resident who has one of the area’s few escape routes on his property. “The only way those people have been getting out is to walk out, and that’s been very tough, because at one point you have to cross the Buckhorn Creek.”
A creek that is now about 50 feet wide and about 6 feet deep, he added.
“One person told me when they came out, it took them two days to travel 12 miles,” Dion said. Officials have since told him to allow the area’s residents to exit through his land, but not to let them back in.
Emergency responders have been hankering for the remaining residents to get out. Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith on Wednesday and Thursday journeyed on a hearts-and-minds tour in which he visited residents by helicopter to try to persuade them to leave.
“It’s going to be difficult or impossible to get them any medical or law enforcement assistance,” sheriff’s spokesman John Schulz said.
The holdouts are apparently fine with that: On Thursday afternoon, officials estimated that crews were about 85% done with helicopter rescues, with only eight residents flown out to a military airfield for the day.
A different kind of emergency response was unfolding in Weld County, where the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission reported two significant oil spills, of 13,566 and 5,250 gallons, from Anadarko Petroleum Corp. storage tanks.
Officials said the oil appeared to have flowed away with the floodwaters and that absorbent booms laid down by the company had collected only the oiled water still standing around the failed tanks.
“We are working with the appropriate state and federal agencies to clean up the releases to the greatest extent possible,” the company said in a statement Thursday.
Anadarko, which runs about 5,800 fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, wells, also said that 600 wells remained sealed off against the lingering floodwaters to prevent environmental contamination.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper batted down the idea of a moratorium on the oil and gas industry, adding that oil is just one of the many pollutants that have entered the water.
“When you look at the amount of water going through that river, it will process these pollutants very, very rapidly. Not that any pollution is a good thing, but in a flood of this magnitude, to have as little as we had.... The several small spills that we’ve had have been very small relative to the huge flow of water.”
A spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said that most of the state’s fracking wells were in the production phase of their operation and that they were not likely to have potentially harmful chemicals on site. Such chemicals are used for creating the well, the spokesman said.
At least one expert, however, was skeptical.
“It’s true that most of the wells were in the producing stage,” said Rob Jackson, a professor of environmental sciences who has studied fracking at Duke University, responding to the commission’s comments. “That isn’t especially useful, except for any tanks that rupture at producing sites. What is more relevant is how many wells were being fracked, where they were and whether they flooded.”
State regulators said they were in the process of evaluating Colorado’s drilling sites and were still determining how severe the flood damage was.
Willmeng, the environmental activist who photographed the industrial damage, said he wanted a statewide moratorium on all oil and gas activity.
“Those of us who have been active against this industry’s relationship to the public health and the environment have always known that this activity was dangerous from the beginning,” Willmeng said, “so this is the most unfortunate turn of events.”
Times staff writer Matt Stevens in Los Angeles contributed to this report.