Colorado takes formal action against two energy companies for Parachute Creek spill


From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

State regulators took formal enforcement actions against two energy companies Wednesday as efforts continued to try to determine the source of a liquid hydrocarbon discovered near Parachute Creek about four miles northwest of Parachute. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff issued notices of alleged violation against Williams and WPX Energy in connection with a subsurface leak that has produced about 6,000 gallons of a liquid believed to be a byproduct of natural gas development.

Spokespersons Todd Hartman of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Michele Swaner of Williams both said only another one or two more barrels (42 to 84 gallons) of the liquid had been recovered since Tuesday. The amounts recovered have fallen off sharply in the last few days, suggesting the flow from the unidentified source may be diminishing.

However, substantial amounts of contaminated groundwater continue to be removed. More than 102,000 gallons have now been recovered, including more than 16,000 gallons on Wednesday.

There continues to be no evidence of contamination of the creek, and measures including digging interceptor trenches have been taken to try to protect it. The notices issued Wednesday also require the companies to “identify and evaluate all potential receptors of both surface and ground water within a one-mile radius of the interceptor trenches.” Groundwater is only about 10 feet below ground level in part of the contamination area, which is itself up to 14 feet deep.

The citations issued Wednesday could lead to potential fines in connection with the incident. However, the COGCC sometimes issues them to all potentially responsible parties in cases when contamination from an unknown source has occurred, in order to ensure their involvement in helping to determine the source and assisting in remediation and protective measures while the investigation continues.

Williams first discovered soil contamination March 8 in a pipeline corridor adjacent to its gas plant, which is on land owned by WPX Energy. It was doing pipeline location work in preparation for building a new plant on the WPX land. The land belonged to Williams until about a year ago, when it spun off its oil and gas exploration and production operations to focus on operating gas plants and pipelines, and WPX was created as an independent company.

Part of the ongoing investigation has involved a slow-going process of clearing around pipelines belonging to both companies in the right of way to check for leaks. Pressure tests by the companies haven’t indicated that any pipeline leaks are occurring. There also are tanks and other infrastructure in the area, including well pads owned by WPX.

In a March 11 email to a COGCC staff member, Williams environmental specialist Annette Garrigues said, “We do not believe the substance is coming from our facility. WPX and Williams both agree that we do not know where it is coming from. The issue is who takes responsibility for the delineation effort and cost.” That delineation has involved digging to determine the extent of the contaminated area.

In emails to the COGCC, Garrigues also noted WPX also had recently put in a line to carry produced water from gas development, and wondered whether there had been any “historical release” of fluid from a nearby WPX pad. Swaner would not comment Wednesday beyond the brief update she emailed on the status of the investigation and cleanup.

WPX spokeswoman Susan Alvillar said her company has inspected several of its nearby well pads several times, examined tanks and sampled condensate and produced water. Those samples are now being analyzed, she said. The company has found no problems involving the infrastructure or wells themselves, she said. And the substance that has been leaking doesn’t bear any resemblance to produced water, she said. But the company continues to do its part to help with the investigation, she said. As for the question of taking responsibility for costs, “I can tell you we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on this on our own. We’ve been cooperating,” she said.

“I think until the source is identified, we’ll definitely do our part.”

Meanwhile, former Garfield County Commissioner and state oil and gas Commissioner Tresi Houpt said Wednesday the situation suggests that perhaps better testing criteria are needed in the state commission’s pipeline rules. “There’s absolutely something missing when you read in the paper that it’s going to take weeks to figure out where this (leak) is,” she said.

Various pipeline regulations apply to oil and gas infrastructure, at federal, state and sometimes county levels, depending on things such as whether they are gathering lines from wells or interstate lines. Said Houpt, “As the pipelines age I think it’s going to be really important that we pay more attention to the condition of the pipelines and really … do more comprehensive mapping of where all the pipelines are because there are thousands of them” in Colorado. Garfield County has some 10,000 active wells, and Houpt said pipelines are associated with most of them.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

An investigation continues into the cause of a hydrocarbon leak that has surpassed 5,800 gallons in size, even as concerns are being raised about delays in the town of Parachute and the public being made aware of it.

Todd Hartman, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said Tuesday another 420 gallons of an unidentified liquid apparently associated with natural gas development were pulled from a pipeline right of way near Parachute Creek, about four miles northwest of town, since Monday morning. About 86,500 gallons of contaminated groundwater have been removed, up from about 60,000 as of Monday morning. There’s been no indication of impact to the creek, Hartman said.

Williams, which along with WPX Energy owns pipelines in the right of way, is investigating several lines as potential sources. “It is important to recognize that operators are proceeding cautiously as pipeline environments must always be treated with deliberate and considered actions,” Hartman said.

Bob Knight, administrator for the town of Parachute, said he and other town officials visited the site Tuesday morning and were reassured by what they saw. “I’m comfortable that everything’s been contained; nothing’s going to get into Parachute Creek,” he said.

But he isn’t happy that Williams first discovered contamination March 8 and didn’t notify the town until last Wednesday, five days later. After an incident came to light in 2008 involving contamination of Garden Gulch in the Parachute Creek watershed by the oil and gas industry, Knight said, protocols were put in place to assure immediate notification of the town in the case of future incidents threatening the creek, which the town uses for irrigation. Knight said Williams failed to follow that protocol in this month’s situation. “I just think we were left out of the loop and I find that displeasing,” he said.

Rick Bumgardner, whose cattle run on leased land and drink from the creek downstream of the contamination site, said he didn’t learn of the situation until being told by another rancher Monday. He said he’s never contacted in such cases, but “they’re my cattle that are going to drink the polluted water when it happens … if it happens.”

Chris Arend, with the group Conservation Colorado, said incidents such as the Parachute one are good examples of how there needs to be greater transparency involving the industry. He said it’s important in the case of major releases for the public to be informed in a timely manner. “This is a major spill and we’re just finding out about it now. That’s not good for Colorado’s public health,” he said Monday.

Howard Orona, who lives on Parachute Creek and is a citizens representative on Garfield County’s Energy Advisory Board, said whether information was made public soon enough is questionable, and getting it out early helps prevent rampant speculation.

The problem was first discovered when Williams was locating pipelines in an existing pipeline right of way adjacent to a gas plant it owns on land belonging to WPX Energy. Williams is preparing to add a new plant there. “Companies do what is called self-reporting, which is certainly what we did March 8,” Williams spokeswoman Michele Swaner said.

Both the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the federal Environmental Protection Agency received immediate notification.

Hartman said he believes the initial discovery was limited to soil contamination. Williams provided further notification Wednesday upon discovering the liquids, he said. WPX provided notification Friday when more liquids were found during trenching work to address the contamination. Hartman said it was probably about 4 p.m. Friday that the executive director’s office of the Department of Natural Resources came to understand a significant volume of liquid was involved.

DNR director Mike King said in a statement Tuesday, “When we learned about this Friday our thoughts and energy were focused on ensuring protection of the environment, and making sure the right things were happening on the ground and with notification of local leadership. In retrospect, we recognize the concerns, and we’re evaluating how we can better communicate in these situations going forward.”

Hartman said that on Friday, “We did not see an imminent threat to health and safety and thought it better to get more information and better understand the situation before issuing some kind of announcement that would have said very little at that stage.”

Saturday, the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association worked with companies to issue a news release, as news of the incident began to break. At that point, Hartman said, “I determined it was best for me to gather information from our field people … so I could provide COGCC’s information and perspective to reporters who were working the story.” He added, “These things unfold quickly and you have to make rapid decisions with incomplete information. Should the same thing happen again, I might do it differently, but that’s how it played out this time.”

Swaner said Tuesday that she couldn’t speak to the issue of communication protocols with Parachute and future notification, but added, “Obviously we are talking to agencies and to Parachute, of course, and will continue to do so.”

Steve Gunderson, director of the state Water Quality Control Division, said that based on its volume, the Parachute leak is “a significant release” and an impact of the creek remains “a real possibility.” He said the agency’s enforcement officials will consider whether additional actions are necessary, but it may defer to the oil and gas commission, per an agreement between the agencies.

Oil and gas regulators issued cease-and-desist orders against Williams and WPX to ensure measures are taken to protect the creek and surface. Hartman said the agency also is planning to issue a notice of alleged violation.

EPA spokesman Matthew Allen said that agency also is working on issuing an enforcement order outlining steps it wants taken to protect the creek.

The Colorado Wildlife Federation said the incident shows the need for the oil and gas commission to finish something it postponed action on five years ago — establishing safe operational setbacks from waterways. They said better water monitoring also might have led to the contamination being detected earlier.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

National wildlife advocates on Tuesday urged Colorado leaders to take action to protect mountain rivers from oil and gas spills as vacuum crews continued to drain hydrocarbons from an uncontained plume from a spill north of the Colorado River near Parachute.

More than 86,000 gallons, including 5,838 gallons of hydrocarbons, had been removed from the plume spreading by a Williams energy company gas plant along Parachute Creek, Williams spokeswoman Michele Swaner said.

State regulators in 2008 deferred the issue of buffers for oil and gas wells and pipelines along rivers and streams. The spill, reported March 8, “is one more strong argument for keeping oil and gas wells and related infrastructure a safe distance from waterways,” Colorado Wildlife Federation director Suzanne O’Neill said. State regulators “pledged to form a stakeholders’ group to develop standards for riparian setbacks. We’re still waiting.”

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (John Colson):

“Everything is status quo,” added Williams’ spokeswoman Donna Gray, explaining that the actual source of the plume had not been located.

Todd Hartman, communications official for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — which oversees the industry — said that as of late Tuesday the crews had vacuumed 10 additional barrels of “oil” from the spill site that day. That brings the amount of what he termed “oil” vacuumed from the site to a total of 139 barrels, or 5,800 gallons, according to Hartman…

Also on Tuesday, a group of Western Slope industry critics told the Post Independent they felt the county erred in not immediately making a public announcement about the spill when it was first reported on March 8.

“For us to learn a week later is not acceptable,” said Leslie Robinson, a member of the county’s Energy Advisory Board and of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA), a lobbying and citizen advocacy group.

Finally on Tuesday, a pair of environmental advocacy groups, National Wildlife Federation and the Colorado Wildlife Federation, issued a statement staying the spill “should be a wake-up call for state regulators to [get to work] establishing safe setbacks for waterways” to keep spills from polluting local rivers and streams.

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

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