Local Officials Rebuke Oil Companies Over Waste-Pit Spills

PhotobucketRepresentatives from Chevron, Oxy, Conoco-Philips, EnCana, Williams Production, Antero, Berry and Marathon, among other top oil and gas companies, sat at a horseshoe-shaped conference table on Thursday night. This boardroom wasn’t in Denver or on Wall Street. It was in Rifle at the regular monthly meeting of the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board (EAB) and everyone was pretty sure what was on the agenda — the Garden Gulch waste pit spills on the Roan Plateau near Parachute.By the time the natural gas boom will bust in the next decade or two, there will be more than 20,000 natural gas wells drilled in western Garfield County. Right now, the men, the materials, the dust, the traffic and gas rigs are all jammed in the valley and hills between Silt, Rifle and Parachute along Interstate 70.

PhotobucketTo head off politically charged disputes, these energy companies, local government officials, environmental community groups and rural residents formed the EAB in 2004. Here, discussions revolve around news, issues and impacts from the drilling industry such as truck traffic concerns, rig construction locations and new drilling techniques. Citizen complaints also are aired-out in public.

At Thursday’s EAB meeting, it was going to be the first time that local government officials and citizens, and the companies responsible for the waste-pit spills on the Roan – Berry Petroleum and Marathon Oil — were going to be together, eyeball to eyeball, with the press in the audience and the local community TV camera on.

There were no lawyers, consultants or slick PR people at the table — although there were probably a few in the audience.

Rifle, Silt and Parachute government officials did not hesitate to admonish all the oil and gas company representatives at the table for inconsiderate drilling practices and waste-pit problems.

“We are responsible for the health and welfare of our communities,” Rifle Mayor Pro-tem Alan Lambert sternly said. “It gives us heart  attacks to see open waste pits along our roadways and in our watersheds. You are treating us like we are a Commerce City.”

Lambert said it was hard to attract other business with the industry’s minimal reclamation procedures and dark waste pits on the outskirts of town along I-70. “While you grow, we have to grow — please use better common sense when you place your rigs on the land we have marked for commercial development,” Lambert scolded industry representatives.

“Incidents like the Garden Gulch spills are what keep us up at night,” Silt Town Administrator Betsy Suerth said to the group, “It gives us great heartaches when the industry doesn’t follow up on problems.”

Robert Knight, town administrator of Parachute, was especially tough. “Why did we have to be notified about the spills by a reporter from The Grand Junction Sentinel?” he asked the energy representatives. “As a municipality, not only did we have questions but we had to address the concerns of our citizens. There was a complete breakdown of communication,” he charged.

Admittedly, the communication system between the company, the state and the local governments needs to be improved, noted Bob Coleman, the local production manager of Marathon Oil. A defect in a Marathon gas rig pit liner spilled over 30,000 barrels of wastewater into the Parachute Creek watershed a month ago.

Photobucket“The information in the newspapers was not correct,” Coleman said. “The wastewater was mostly fresh water and within drinking water standards.” Tests show the spills wouldn’t cause environmental damage, he noted, but the company would continue to monitor the situation.

Mike Ivy, the Berry Petroleum representative, agreed their company is going to have to work on reporting procedures. Their wastewater pit spills in Garden Gulch occurred several times since December but weren’t reported until the Marathon mishap. “We didn’t think we had to report a spill of mostly fresh water,” he said.

Ivy also assured government officials and citizens that pit-liner leak problems, this time caused by a hole from a hot bar thrown into the pit by a welder, would be resolved by heavier liner covers. “We regret this happened. We are fully cooperating with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and other state officials. So far, we’ve spent over $1 million in clean-up procedures.”

The Marathon and Berry waste pits are on Chevron property. “As the landowner, we are evaluating the impacts of the spills and going to monitor wildlife and fish populations in the Parachute Creek drainage area,” Chevron spokesperson Kristi Pollard said.

Knight noted that oil company officials are now working closely with the town and state agencies, updating information about the cleanup and test results. However, the public relations damage has been done, Knight believed. “This incident gave the whole industry a black eye.”

Top photo: The Energy Advisory Board meeting in Rifle
Middle photo: Major energy companies are represented
Last photo: Industry representatives listen to local government complaints
Photos by Leslie Robinson