Water Quality in NW Colorado: Is it the Pits?

PhotobucketMud and chemicals discharged from five waste pits at drilling sites on the Roan Plateau are seeping into the Parachute Creek watershed. With snowmelt expected to be above normal this year, experts fear that similar pits throughout the northwest corner of the state may also overflow this spring, possibly threatening water supplies throughout the region. A photo (shown above) of one of the spills show dark materials encased in frozen waterfalls. With temperatures consistently climbing above freezing now, the spills will flow into Parachute Creek drainage, a source of water for wildlife and livestock.

A statement from Marathon Oil Co. two weeks ago said the company was responsible for one 30,000-barrel release from a water pit. Berry Petroleum Co. has also notified the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC)  that there have been four waste pit spills related to their drilling activities in the Garden Gulch area on the Roan since November. Both companies have said clean-up procedures have started. COGCC officials have not released any names or results from their investigations so far.

Duke Cox, the interim director at the environmental group Western Colorado Congress, has also worked on drill rigs. “I have never known a reserve pit to have just water and dirt,” he said, refuting the claims from Marathon that test results showed only water waste from their spills. 

“We need to know what is in the water,” Cox said. “The claim that it is just muddy water is crap.”

Marathon insists there will be no negative impact on water resources. They noted they immediately contacted COGCC when the water release happened and that they will continue to monitor the spill.

PhotobucketLast week, WCC released photos of what the group thought were the spills from Garden Gulch. On Wednesday, the organization said the photos were actually of other debris flows unknown to COGCC.

Because petroleum chemicals, lubricants and other liquid materials used in drilling activities are considered proprietary information, local officials have no idea what impact these leaks might have on water quality downstream. 

“What we have seen visually appears to be concerning,” said Dean Riggs, the Division of Wildlife manager for District 7, which covers the area from Glenwood Springs to the Utah border. “Officials from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the Department of Health and the DOW are working toward assessing the problem. But, at this point, we really do not know what the resulting effect on wildlife might be.”

Parachute rancher Sid Lindauer said neither the oil and gas companies nor the state has told him what could be in the water downstream from the Roan Plateau drilling waste spills.

“This could be a threat to my livestock,” Lindauer said. With Parachute Creek running unusually cloudy right now, he won’t let his horses drink from the creek.

There is concern not only for the current drilling waste pit overflows on the Roan but also for the other waste pits located on public and private land, which could be affected by the huge snow melt this spring.

The drilling activity by Berry Petroleum and Marathon Oil Co. is on land owned by Chevron above the town of Parachute.

“The bigger problem will be the hundreds of reserve pits all over the northwest that are going to fill with melt water and overflow,” Cox noted. “We do not believe the industry has the resources nor the inclination to hurriedly visit and drain all of them, even though that is what they should do. This could be a huge problem.”

Riggs agreed. “With more and more drilling sites beginning to creep up the sides of hills and the resulting pits being on those hills, it appears that this problem will get worse before it gets better, particularly with the snowfall this year.”

Snowpack in some northwest areas is running 130 percent above normal.

oil rigLiz Chandler, a veterinarian and president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, a community activist group concerned about drilling issues in Garfield County, said neither the energy companies nor the COGCC have been very good about due diligence on waste pit spill cleanups in the past.

“I know a rancher near Silt who is trying to get a waste pit overflow cleaned up on his property from a year ago,” she said. “Now his prized bull is going lame, and I can’t help to feel the two incidents are related. But neither the state nor the oil company will do anything.”

Garfield County’s oil and gas liaison, Judy Jordan, also agrees that the effect of spring runoff may cause more chemical waste pit overflows. “I have conveyed concerns about pits and their closures to COGCC. Some of the prevention work they need to do could involve constructing temporary holding facilities.”

Towns near Parachute are concerned for their own water quality from chemical spills out of the drilling waste pits. For instance, the town of Silt gets its water supply from an area along the Colorado River that has seen increased drilling activity in the past four years.

Silt Mayor Dave Moore hopes the COGCC and the energy companies will be diligent about cleaning up the spills. “Silt will be watching these events closely.”

Top photo of waste pit spill provided by COGCC. Middle photo provided by WCC found debris flows from natural gas pipeline construction on top of the Roan previously unknown to the COGCC. Third photo provided by Dustry Horwit of the Environmental Working Group shows a waste pit next to two drillling rigs in NW Colorado (and unrelated to current spills.)