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Climate Justice

Meet Patricia Nelson: Mother, Environmental Justice Litigant, Supporter of Mothers Out Front

By Rosemary Lytle

When Patricia Nelson decided to come home to Weld County, Colorado—after living for several years in Louisiana—it was because she wanted her son Diego to have the same kind of childhood she had. She wanted him to be surrounded by family; aunts, uncles, cousins. She wanted him to be able to play outside; to breathe fresh air. She wanted him to live in a place that felt safe. But when Patricia and Diego got to Weld County, specifically her hometown of Greeley, it didn’t feel like the haven it’d been in her youth.

Her community was being fracked.

Hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” is the process of drilling down into the earth and pumping it full of a high-pressure water mixture to release the gas inside. The term “fracking” describes how the rock fractures. In truth, fractured rock and the corporate wealth it produces, had long been a part of her hometown. There had always been oil and gas in Weld County—and good jobs in the industry. Patricia had family members who had been employed in it forever. In fact, Weld County is called the “epicenter” of the oil and gas industry in Colorado. By one report, there are more than 23,000 active wells in Weld County alone.

It was really nothing new. But this was different.

When she got home, there were permits being issued for drilling at a school, Bella Romero Academy, in her own neighborhood—the school that her own son and many of her young relatives would be attending one day soon. Now fracking seemed too close; too personal. “It had never encroached on us in that way before,” Patricia says. The drilling had never been this kind of a threat.

It was her friend, former State Representative Rochelle Galindo, who first told Patricia about a meeting to organize parents to protest the permits. And it was Dr. Lisa McKenzie, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, who taught her about how cancer diagnosis increases in areas that are heavily fracked. There’s always more heart disease, more in vitro issues. She educated herself, heard from attorneys at the University of Denver law clinic, and she reached a conclusion: It was all too terrifying.

“I was appalled that they were going to allow a giant site right behind the school. Who in their right mind would approve of such a thing?”

Somebody had to fight it. And that somebody became Patricia.

She stood up and represented the people; people who were immigrants and refugees, Latino and African. She stood up for the people who couldn’t risk coming to meetings with a lot of lawyers around; the people who couldn’t get time off work to speak up for their rights. “I said I would be the parent they needed because I had the luxury of speaking out. I’m an American citizen. I can send my kid to a different school if it comes to that. I can take time off work for meetings. Others just couldn’t risk doing all that.”

While Patricia felt compelled to speak for others, as well as for herself, it brought mixed reactions. “People are making good money in drilling. My family members, too. They said, ‘If you don’t like it here, why don’t you just leave.’ But I couldn’t leave. This is my home.”

Fast forward four years, all the legal remedies have been exhausted: the appeals, the challenges, the requests to the State Supreme Court have all been made. There was a victory along the way, in gaining legal standing for community groups. But Bella Romero Academy is still being fracked. And the community is still being terrorized by it.

Still, in the 3-year fight, she was able to advocate for her community in a meaningful way. She was able to support other parents and many came forward to thank her for being their face, their voice. She was even featured in the New York Times and on the Daily Show. And, she connected with Mothers Out Front.

“After being in this legal battle for so long, I was just excited to learn that there was an organization made up of Moms who care about leaving a livable planet for their children. … The only reason I ever got involved in any of this is because I have a kid. I just want to protect all the kids.”

Going forward, Patricia says, there is another reason for mothers, grandmothers and others to stay connected in these struggles: “I hope that together we’re able to do a better job of lifting up marginalized communities, communities of color. These are the ones affected by pollution, by environmental racism. These are the communities that need and deserve our protection.”


Rosemary Lytle, Frontline Communications Consultant for Mothers Out Front, is a columnist who worked in newspaper journalism for nearly 20 years.