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Colorado and Wyoming: more spills; no fines

Amy Mall

Posted April 16, 2013

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Since early March, citizens across Colorado have been hearing about groundwater contamination near the town of Parachute in western Colorado. High levels of benzene--a known carcinogen--have been found in groundwater about 1,400 feet downstream of the presumed source of a leak. A monitoring well about 10 feet from Parachute Creek found benzene at 340 parts per billion, and the drinking water standard for benzene is a maximum 5 ppb. After a month, there are reports of a faulty pressure gauge causing the leak, but there are also reports of pumper trucks using contaminated hoses to fill up with water from Parachute Creek.

Either way, it's been more than a month and there is still no resolution of this case, which has Coloradans worried about whether their drinking and irrigation water is being properly protected from the risks of fracking and oil and gas development.

They have good reason to worry. A recent analysis by the Coloradoan newspaper found that of 3,852 violation notices issued to oil and gas companies since in Colorado since 1996, only 267—less than seven percent—have resulted in fines. How can we get companies to change their practices and comply with the law if there are no real incentives to do so?

Fortunately, the Colorado House of Representatives just passed a bill that sets a minimum daily fine of $5,000 for violations that have a significant adverse impact on public health, safety or welfare. The bill also raises fines. It's about time! The Colorado Senate should pass the bill.

Inadequate regulatory enforcement is an issue in Wyoming, also. Last year there was a blowout during drilling of a gas well in Wyoming. It took three days to stop the well from spewing pollutants into the air and it was estimated that 31,500 gallons of drilling fluid blew out of the well into the air, in addition to two million cubic feet of natural gas. Fifty people were evacuated. Although the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission found that the cause was an "improperly installed lockdown pin on the wellhead" -- which sounds like human error to me--the Commission did not fine the company that owns the well. Not one dime.

One rancher said, "I can't put chemicals on my neighbor's property. If I went and put chemicals on my neighbor's property, he'd been calling the sheriff, and I'd be in trouble."
This is just another example of how the oil and gas industry gets special treatment by regulators and is not held to the same standards as other industries.

It's time to close these gaps in Colorado, Wyoming, and other states. Communities across the country want their regulators to strictly enforce the laws with meaningful penalties that encourage compliance.

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Michael BerndtsonApr 17 2013 12:24 PM

Amy, in the first paragraph you write:
"High levels of benzene--a known carcinogen--have been found in groundwater about 1,400 feet downstream of the presumed source of a leak." Not to be "that" guy on the internetz, but I believe down-gradient should be substituted for downstream, since benzene appears to be transporting in the dissolved phase via groundwater movement.

What spilled again? That's a pretty high concentration in groundwater after 1,400 feet of travel. I'm assuming benzene was in a mixture that spilled, traveling downward through the unsaturated soil, coming into contact with the water table, dissolving in the groundwater before horizontal gradient transport. Then there's all the porous media mechanisms kicking in like attenuation, biological degradation, dilution and so on to lower the concentration in groundwater. Unless there's a non-aqueous phase slowing moving away from the spill site.

Ken Glick (EEI)Apr 17 2013 02:41 PM

Now that the lower legislative body in Colorado passed the Increase in fines, any news on Whether or not Gov. Hickenlooper will sign the fines increases into law? Seems to me that doing so would be a no-brainer but then again Hickenlooper is 100% pro- fracking in his state.

Amy MallApr 17 2013 05:42 PM

Hi Michael: The information from Williams is that there was a failure of a pressure gauge that is part of a valve set on a 4-inch natural gas liquids pipeline. They set up a website here:

Publius ValeriousApr 17 2013 11:27 PM

The pressure gauge leakage from a small 1/8 inch sch. 80 nipple for the gauge could put out 19 to 25 gallons per minute at the 200 psi of line pressure. This line is not run continuously, but it could put out their initial pickup of hydrocarbons (including amounts of well gasoline and BTEXs) of 6,000 gallons in 4.5 hours. When they did flow meter record study, they found the leak went from Dec. 18 to Jan. 3. Without putting out their total loss, they basically said it put 99 bbls more in the ground beyond their recovery with 80% evaporating during blowout. Independent calculations showed this to be about 1205 bbls (50610 gallons) total liquids blown out in sub-zero weather. These liquids are distilled by chilling and their estimate of 80% is highly questionable. The high readings and spread of plume gives every indication of the higher number of gallons in the ground. Regardless, they should be treating it as if the whole amount went into the ground.
The sad part is that they were treating it as a gauge spill of “about 25 gallons” until it was pointed out to them, by an outside engineer, the enormous amount that could (and did) come from this gauge. It was then they went back to their flow meter data to discover how long and how much had escaped from them. The COGCC has not accepted this as it puts many more regulatory questions and shortcomings on the table, as well as their lack of awareness of the hidden danger. It is like they are holding a safety net for the company. They use the finding of more benzene on the other side of the creek as “not explained”; but, this is the side of the destination tank farm and the site of transfer operations of the stored liquids.

Kathy IrelandApr 25 2013 04:24 PM

I too believe Colorado has reason to worry about fracking. Those of us who live in the drilling area worry about the overall health of its citizens. We tried to set regulations and the voters even approved banning fracking within city limits. For our efforts, we are being sued by the oil companies and our state. How sad for the state of Colorado. I'm glad the House passed the violations bill and the Senate needs to do the same. The oil companies need to be accountable for all damage done to the state - so we don't lose our quality of life.

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