State backlogged with gas contamination cases dating back years

Despite a record fine of $390,000 levied last month against Oxy USA, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) has a backlog of unresolved water and soil contamination cases resulting from natural gas drilling in northwest Colorado, a Colorado Independent investigation reveals.

The chemical makeup of proprietary fracking fluid is off limits even to emergency personnel (donnan.com)

Oxy, along with the Western Slope’s largest natural gas producer, Williams, has also been implicated in a 2008 spill that contaminated a spring near the cabin of Ned Prather in Garfield County, fouling his drinking water well and sending him to the hospital after he guzzled benzene. Both companies deny responsibility.

That case, along with a half a dozen other instances of water or soil contamination linked to drilling operations conducted by at least six different companies, remains unresolved, according to COGCC records. Some of the cases date back to 2007.

The COGCC earlier this month accepted the terms of the Oxy settlement, which included $390,000 for pit-leak contamination in the Cascade Canyon area and another $257,400 for a leak at Rock Springs. But the Prather case and several other high-profile spills remain unresolved, with no fines levied more than two years after they occurred.

Spills and unresolved cases

On Jan. 31, 2008, Marathon Oil reported a defect in a pit liner that caused the release of nearly 32,000 barrels of water that was “flow-back” from a hydrofracture job being stored in a reserve pit to be used in another “frack” job. The water, according to state documents, “infiltrated the subsurface, moved laterally, and discharged from a cliff above Garden Gulch” and into the Parachute Creek drainage.

That same month, Berry Petroleum reported a similar defective pit liner resulting in the release of an unknown quantity of drilling fluids into Garden Gulch. But the company hadn’t reported two previous spills that occurred earlier in 2008 and in November of 2007.

The Berry and Marathon cases were both reported by the Colorado Independent and other media outlets dating back to early 2008, and the incidents resulted in the COGCC reworking its regulations for pit liners on the Roan Plateau. But neither company has been fined.

“You’re right, some of [the cases] date back several years, and I don’t want to make excuses, that shouldn’t be the case,” said David Neslin, executive director of the COGCC, which is charged with permitting and regulating natural gas and oil drilling in Colorado. “We do need to do a better job at bringing timely enforcement matters, and we’re committed to doing so.”

Neslin said enforcement is the agency’s top priority for the remainder of 2010 and that he hopes to have some resolution on the Prather Springs case by mid-summer.

Deep underground detectives playing dodge ball

But while Marathon self-reported and Berry came clean after a third spill in the Garden Gulch area, no company has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the Prather Springs case. Investigators have narrowed it down to Oxy or Williams, but Neslin said multiple operators in one area contribute to delays in enforcement actions.

“These are really tough cases,” Neslin said. “You’re talking about what happened thousands of feet below the surface, and in some situations you have multiple operators or multiple facilities in an area, and so simply investigating and developing the case is difficult and very time-consuming.”

Leslie Robinson of the grassroots Grand Valley Citizens Alliance commended Oxy for coming forward in the Cascade Canyon and Rocks Springs cases, but said too many operators prefer to play “dodge ball” when it comes to admitting responsibility for spills.

“Although proof may obviously point to a company’s offense, they can claim ‘reasonable deniability’ about the event, making COGCC staff prove chemically that an XYZ frac waste or whatever contaminant actually came from a certain site,” Robinson said.

Trademark-guarded chemicals

“The big problem is frac chemicals are a secret and Colorado doesn’t believe in tagging wells, so it takes COGCC staff months, if not years, to shovel through layers of company lawyers, engineers and scientists to finally agree on what happened and what should be the financial settlement – if any.”

Both the Garfield County commissioners and Ned Prather have expressed dismay his case has taken so much time to resolve. The commissioners drafted a resolution rebuking the state for taking so long and Prather spoke to the Denver Post:

“I’ve always stuck up for oil and gas, but now when we need them to stand up and do what’s right, they won’t,” Prather told the paper last year. “If I was asked what has made me the maddest in all this, it’s the oil and gas commission not doing what they are supposed to do.”

The complexity of cases such as Prather Springs will continue to make enforcement a time-consuming process, Neslin said.

“We have a number of such cases, and so it’s partly a staffing issue – we only have so many environmental specialists and they can only do so much – and it’s partly the difficulty that these cases present, factually and scientifically and forensically,” Neslin added.

EnCana held the previous dubious record for the highest COGCC fine to date – $371,000 for a faulty concrete job that led to methane and benzene contaminating West Divide Creek near Silt. But state records show the company still has an unresolved violation involving improper reclamation of a waste pit dating back to September of 2007 and another violation for a pit spill in June of 2007.

Denver-based Antero Resources, which wants to drill up to 200 new wells in and around the Battlement Mesa community, was hit with a tank spill violation that “created an unsafe work environment” in December of 2007. But that case remains unresolved, according to the COGCC.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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