EPA data strengthens call to safeguard water in Garfield County

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Oil and gas industry watchdog groups in Garfield County want the state to dramatically step up groundwater testing near gas drilling operations in the wake of new evidence that hydraulic fracturing may have contaminated drinking-water wells in Wyoming.

<em>The chemical makeup of proprietary fracking fluid is off limits even to emergency personnel (donnan.com)</em>
What's in there? Companies have no obligation to reveal the chemical makeup of fracking fluid (donnan.com)

Two groups will meet with the county commissioners today in Glenwood Springs to discuss recent findings by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that hydraulic fracturing — commonly referred to as fracking — may have introduced toxic chemicals such as 2-butoxyethanol, or 2-BE, into water wells near Pavillion, Wyo.

The activists say the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which regulates natural-gas drilling in the state, has been providing the county commissioners with false assurances that fracking — which involves injecting high-pressure sand, water and undisclosed chemicals into gas wells to free up more gas — does not pose a threat to groundwater supplies.

“It’s not an argument about stopping gas drilling by any means,” said Tara Meixsell of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA). “It’s an argument about not using undisclosed and toxic chemicals and not using carcinogenic chemicals. It’s an argument about being a little more prudent about protecting people’s health and water quality.”

Meixsell said there are several cases in Garfield County, which is Colorado’s undisputed epicenter of Western Slope gas production, that show a pattern of problems with fracking, which was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005 under the Bush administration.

Meixsell said that at today’s meeting she’ll introduce more evidence from some of those cases, including that of Larry and Laura Amos of Silt, whose water well exploded in 2001 after nearby gas wells were fracked. The Canadian company EnCana denies the Amos’s well was contaminated by fracking, but did reach a settlement with the couple, who later moved away.

A bill called the FRAC Act, introduced by U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis of Colorado, would remove the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption and require the disclosure of fracking fluids, which companies claim to keep under wraps for competitive reasons.

At least one Garfield County commissioner, Democrat Trési Houpt, appears to support the added layer of federal oversight. But her two fellow board members, both Republicans who were supported by the oil and gas industry in the 2008 election, may not be quite so receptive.

The GVCA, along with the Western Colorado Congress, also will call on the commissioners to implore the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to study the effects of drilling chemicals on the Battlement Mesa community of more than 5,000 people, where a Denver company wants to drill 200 gas wells from 10 pads in close proximity to homes and town facilities. The two groups want the state to increase drilling-rig setbacks from homes from the current 150 feet to at least 1,000 feet.

David Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), has said an EPA mandate that the state start issuing fracking permits would spread his staff too thin and potentially take it away from other key oversight obligations. He believes the process is covered in COGCC’s recently revised drilling regulations.

And he also disagrees with the findings of an independent geologist, Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, who has produced several reports for Garfield County detailing elevated levels of methane in groundwater since the most recent gas boom began about a decade ago. Thyne also has concluded fracking may be at least partially responsible for some local cases of well contamination and that more study would be prudent given the big spike in how often the process is now employed.

“We just respectfully disagree with his conclusions that he articulated in his report to the county,” Neslin said. “That said, the staff did discuss with the commissioners the possibility of collecting additional longitudinal data on groundwater quality in that area.”

Neslin added the COGCC is already doing something similar in La Plata County.

“Now, there are a lot more wells drilled in Garfield County than there are in La Plata County, so I don’t think we’d be looking at something where every water well in proximity to a gas well gets sampled,” he said. “But we will certainly investigate the possibility of developing a sampling program that would create this kind of more long-term picture of groundwater quality in that area.”

Thyne was among a handful of scientists, including an EPA whistleblower, who felt the 2004 EPA study of fracking was flawed. Neslin said he has not read that report but still disagrees with Thyne’s conclusions about groundwater quality in Garfield County.

“And even if we disagree with him about whether there has been a change to date, it still might be prudent given the level of drilling that’s occurred and is expected to put something like that [testing] in place so we’re not having a similar discussion five years from now,” Neslin said.

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