PARACHUTE, Colo. - Area residents, concerned about the discovery of extremely high levels of the toxic compound benzene 10 feet from the banks of Parachute Creek, are calling on state officials to take over the water sampling duties currently being conducted by a private company.
That company, Bargath LLC of Oklahoma, is listed by the Bloom Businessweek website as a "subsidiary of Williams Companies, Inc.," the parent company of Williams Midstream and WPX Energy.
Bargath, according to statements from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, has been in charge of water sampling from Parachute Creek and from two groups of water-quality monitoring wells, one group at about 30 feet from the creek and a second group just 10 feet from the creek.
In an email to Matt Lepore, director of the commission, Silt resident Carl McWilliams pointed out that Bargath in late 2012 was fined $275,000 for violations of the state's storm water management regulations in its operations in Garfield County.
Bargath was working on a pipeline project with Williams Production RMT, another corporate offshoot of the Williams Companies, along a different stretch of Parachute Creek.
In the current situation on Parachute Creek, benzene has been found in samples taken from both groups of monitoring wells, which has alarmed area residents.
"Please notice the 'joined-at-the-hip' association Bargath LLC has with Williams," wrote McWilliams. "Based upon the unthinkable environmental devastation benzene has to aquifers and groundwater, and the totally unacceptable track record of Bargath LLC and Williams Production on water issues in Garfield County, this email to you is a formal demand that the COGCC immediately implement laboratory water testing of the groundwater and aquifer [in the area of the plume]."
Steve Gunderson, director of the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, disagreed with McWilliams' concerns.
"Certainly, this pipeline leak is a significant and serious situation," Gunderson said.
But, he continued, "It's an apples-and-oranges type of thing" compared to the storm water violations in Bargath's 2012 violations.
"I would say that I see no pattern of violations" on Bargath's part, Gunderson concluded.
Lepore, who was out of the office on Thursday, could not be reached for comment.
The oil and gas commission has conducted some tests of water on the surface of Parachute Creek, but it has left to Williams Midstream and Bargath the work of digging groundwater monitoring wells in the area between the plume of hydrocarbons and Parachute Creek, as well as sampling in Parachute Creek.
Test results from two of those wells have shown levels of benzene in the water thousands of times higher than state or federal safety standards, although company and state officials say the creek itself has not been contaminated by the plume.
Benzene is a known carcinogen linked to leukemia and birth defects, and national poison-control guidelines call for anyone facing benzene exposure to wear protective gear to avoid contamination.
Williams Midstream and WPX Energy, on March 20, were together issued a formal "Notice of Alleged Violation" by the state commission concerning the plume of hydrocarbons next to Parachute Creek.
The plume had been found by Williams workers nearly two weeks earlier, on March 8, in a 40-foot right of way owned by Williams, which crosses land belonging to WPX Energy.
WPX and Williams Midstream were created last year, when Williams Production RMP split in two.
But WPX spokeswoman Susan Alvillar on Thursday, in an email, said the commission is satisfied that the WPX Energy facilities were not the cause of the plume.
Todd Hartman, spokesman for the commission, said in an email that he would have "no comment at this time" concerning Bargath's work at the plume site and whether the commission is worried about the integrity of the testing program.
Bargath, in another link to Williams, is planning to build a 22-mile pipeline from the Divide Creek area to Williams' processing plant on Parachute Creek.
According to David Boyd, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the pipeline project has been approved, but a specific right of way has yet to be issued by the federal agency.