Besides being concerned about possible tainted irrigation water, some Parachute residents are worried about the town’s tainted reputation in light of a natural gas liquids leak near Parachute Creek. Town Council member and former Mayor Roy McClung said the message needs to get out that “Parachute is not a toxic waste dump” as a result of a leak that is drawing national attention. McClung’s comments came during a meeting late last week, as Williams met with the Town Council to talk about its response to the leak and its efforts to protect the town’s irrigation water supply.
Williams recently said it has determined that the leak resulted from a faulty pressure gauge on a pipeline valve set. The gauge began leaking Dec. 20 and it wasn’t discovered and the leak wasn’t stopped until Jan. 3, when a worker went to inspect a valve that had closed down. The company initially believed the leak was less than 25 gallons. But in March it discovered widespread contamination. It now estimates that about 6,000 gallons of hydrocarbons have been recovered and about 4,000 gallons remain in soil and groundwater. The faulty gauge was on a valve set for a pipeline that leaves Williams’ gas processing plant and carries a mixture of propane, butane and other natural gas liquids to tanks on the other side of Parachute Creek. Williams believes that about 80 percent of the liquids that leaked vaporized once they escaped the pressurized line, but that heavier hydrocarbons seeped into the ground.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission says the pressure gauge may be the source of all the contamination, but an investigation continues.
Groundwater monitoring has found high benzene levels near the creek, including on the creek side opposite from the valve set, but it hasn’t been found in the creek water.
Surface water testing
The irrigation season is about to begin, and the town diverts water from the creek into a reservoir that’s used by residents and on town properties. Williams has been working to try to keep the creek water clean and has a plan in place to shut down the reservoir intake should contamination be detected upstream.
Judith Hayward is a Parachute resident who enjoys gardening. This year I’m going to be concerned unless I am assured somehow with testing that this water is not going to give me problems in my garden,” she told trustees and Williams officials.
Dave Keylor, vice president and general manager in the Piceance Basin for Williams, said the company has nine surface water testing points in the creek and six absorbency booms in place. It also visually inspects the creek each half hour and has installed about 90 groundwater monitors as part of its response.
The reservoir diversion point is about two miles downstream from the leak site. The town has given Williams the ability to control the diversion point because of the proximity of Williams workers to it and the company’s continuing monitoring of the water. “We feel confident that at this time, that you can turn your water into the irrigation ditch at the diversion point,” he told town officials Thursday.
The state Department of Natural Resources on Friday reported that diesel-range organics were detected in the creek at the diversion point, but also noted that recent creek tests in the contamination area didn’t detect the organics. Some intermittent diesel-range organics also have been detected upstream from the leak site and may be a result of things such as stormwater runoff from roads. The state also noted that there are several industrial sites between the leak area and the diversion point.
Parachute also has a second, unused reservoir that it is working on using for extra storage to temporarily meet irrigation needs should the creek show contamination. Keylor said contaminated water also could be diverted into that reservoir.
Meanwhile, McClung said he worries about how all the media coverage of the leak will affect the town. “Nobody remembers the good stuff but they remember the bad stuff,” he said, citing environmental disasters in places such as Love Canal and Three-Mile Island. “… I’m afraid that we’re going to start building that kind of reputation in this valley.”
McClung said he has been called from as far away as North Carolina, from people with questions including whether the town will blow up. Town Administrator Bob Knight said he’s taken media calls from as far away as New York. McClung said he overheard at a local restaurant that a family that had been ready to move to Parachute changed their minds because of the leak. “That kills me to see families that don’t want to move here because of this,” he said.
Keylor and town officials said one challenge is inaccurate information reported in the media. Williams has created a website, http://www.answersforparachute.com, to provide information on the incident. Keylor said Williams community and corporate communications representatives also could help work with the town on public relations. Keylor said it’s also going to take “a lot of transparency and a lot of honesty” by Williams in terms of being upfront about the mess he said the company has made and what it is doing to determine the extent of the contamination and clean it up. “We feel our reputation has taken a hit here,” Keylor said, acknowledging that so have the reputations of stakeholders. “We take that personally.”
“It will take some time to rebuild our reputation but we’ll do it, we’re going to get this cleaned up, we’re going to be here for the long haul.”
Williams’ efforts continue to focus in part on fully delineating the extent of contamination. Keylor said investigators believe they have done that on three sides, but not yet to the southeast of the valve set. The creek also heads southeast from the valve area before briefly angling south. As of Friday, benzene contamination had been determined to extend as far as 1,400 feet from the valve site. The presence of benzene on both sides of the creek has puzzled investigators, who believe that groundwater directly beneath the creek flows away from it, which has helped to keep benzene out of the surface water. “We’ve not yet determined the reason for that,” Keylor said of the benzene found across the creek from the leak site. “There are a couple of hypotheses but we have not nailed down why that is.”
He said lab tests show that hydrocarbons in the immediate vicinity of the valve site are the same as what flows through the natural gas liquids line. But officials are awaiting test results to determine whether the more distant hydrocarbons also match the pipeline’s contents.
Meanwhile, Williams continues to hear criticism that it should have notified more parties after discovering in March it had a significant situation on its hands. David Blair, chief of the Grand Valley Fire Protection District, said when concerns about possible waterway contamination arise, one of the first places the public will call is the fire department. “But we didn’t have a clue” what was going on, he said.
Keylor said Williams mistakenly assumed that regulatory agencies it had contacted would spread the word to other parties, but now realizes it had a responsibility to do so.
Kirby Winn, Garfield County’s oil and gas liaison, said he takes some blame for the poor early communication. He said while he was notified, he failed to pass the information on to the county’s emergency manager, who would have then let the fire department know.