Activists: EPA fracking findings in Wyoming relevant in Colorado disclosure debate

Western Slope gas-drilling activist Lisa Bracken, citing parallels between her infamous case and an EPA probe of groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyo., says both incidents should be considered at a hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure hearing in Denver next month.

Bracken points out a number of parallels between the contamination of groundwater on and near her property on West Divide Creek in Garfield County, Colo, and the ongoing investigation by the EPA in Wyoming. She plans to either testify in person or provide written comments when the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) weighs new fracking rules Dec. 5.

The ongoing EPA Pavillion probe recently revealed cancer-causing constituents and a common hydraulic fracturing fluid chemical in an underground aquifer near natural gas wells operated by Calagary-based EnCana.

Igniting methane near West Divide Creek (Lisa Bracken photo).
EnCana in 2004 was hit with a $378,000 fine for failing to properly cement and later fracking a natural gas well near Bracken’s property that ultimately leaked thermogenic and highly flammable methane into West Divide Creek. For years, that fine stood as the record amount levied against an oil and gas company in Colorado, only to be surpassed recently by other spills, including by a company doing contract work for EnCana.

Bracken says the contamination has continued on her property but that the EPA has deferred to state investigators who concluded the latest seepage on her property is biogenic and naturally occurring – issuing a new round of drilling permits to EnCana in the area.

“This is groundwater impact, this is surface water impact, and we’re drinking from this source — not to mention what’s going on upstream still [with more drilling] — and where’s the EPA?” Bracken told the Colorado Independent this week. “All they said is we’re talking with the state and we’re working with them on their investigation.”

The COGCC, which is the lead oil and gas regulatory agency in the state, ultimately concluded this year that “no oil or gas impact has occurred” after another round of testing in the Divide Creek area beginning in 2008.

The COGCC also rebutted (pdf) Bracken’s appearance in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland,” claiming the film confuses too separate cases of methane contamination:

“One of the seeps occurs in a wetland on property owned by Lisa Bracken, who appears in the film; it contains biogenic methane. The other seep, which the COGCC terms the West Divide Creek gas seep, is about 1,500 feet to the south on property owned by a neighbor; it contains thermogenic methane caused by EnCana’s failure to properly cement a natural gas well.”

But Bracken contends the state and the EPA have done a poor job of getting to the bottom of what’s really going on in the Divide Creek area, citing a lack of pre-drilling baseline water samples and a lack of public disclosure of the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process.

“We’re drawing water out of that same formation,” Bracken said. “We’re drinking it and there’s no disclosure about fracking chemicals from 2004 all the way forward. I’ve asked [EnCana and the state] at least a dozen times; they will not disclose them and we’re forced to drink it not knowing because we don’t have any other option. We just can’t afford another option. And the state won’t make Encana haul [water].”

In Pavillion, residents have been warned not to drink the water, and EnCana, which recently sold its holdings in the area, has been trucking in drinking water. As they have in the Garfield County case, EnCana contends the groundwater contamination is naturally occurring.

Frank Smith, director of organizing for the environmental group Western Colorado Congress, said both Divide Creek and Pavillion provide plenty of lessons for regulators going forward.

“These [EPA] findings could and should be applied to Colorado’s ongoing rulemaking for fracking,” Smith said.

Judy Jordan, former oil and gas liaison for Garfield County, said there’s evidence drilling activities can and do cause elevated levels of methane in groundwater. She cites three phases of study of the hydrogeologic conditions in the Mamm Creek Field Area [including Divide Creek] showing higher levels of methane after the most recent gas boom in Garfield County.

“My best guess … is that the methane that we see in domestic wells [in the Mamm Creek area] probably arrives because at least some of it travels up the wells themselves through the annular space that is not sealed, which should be sealed under regulation,” Jordan said. “But, unfortunately, Colorado’s regulations don’t require that the operators cement that whole length of casing, that annular space.”

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