COLLBRAN — Rescue teams were searching Monday for three men missing after a half-mile stretch of a ridge saturated with rain collapsed, sending mud sliding for 3 miles in a remote part of Mesa County.
Meanwhile, the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association confirmed Monday that one active natural gas production facility operated by Oxy was affected by the slide. It said wells associated with the facility were shut down, and no leak had been detected.
The slide hit Sunday near the town of Collbran, about 40 miles east of Grand Junction.
A county road worker, his son and another man went to check on damage Sunday from an initial slide near the edge of Grand Mesa, one of the world’s largest flat-topped mountains, after a rancher reported that his irrigation ditch had stopped flowing, Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said.
CNN early Sunday evening reported that authorities had named them as Clancy Nichols, 51; his son Danny Nichols, 24; and Wes Hawkins, 46.
The men haven’t been heard from since a half-mile wide piece of ridge, saturated by heavy rain, collapsed Sunday and sent mud sliding for 3 miles.
Hilkey said the search has been hampered because only the lower third of the slide is stable. At the edges there, the mud is 20 to 30 feet deep. It’s believed to be several hundred feet deep in some places.
“Everyone on this mountain is praying for a miracle right now,” Hilkey said.
Deputies estimate that the entire ridge had been moving for most of Sunday before someone called to report the slide at 6:15 p.m., describing it as sounding like a freight train. Hilkey believes runoff from Grand Mesa from recent rain triggered the slide. A hydrologist from the Natural Weather Service and a geologist from the U.S. Geological Survey were helping authorities assess the situation.
Bill Clark, a cousin of one of the missing men, visited the canyon where the slide struck and said it was filled with mud. He said the slide struck with so much force that some also spilled over into the neighboring draw.
“I’ve never seen so much earth move like that in my life,” he said.
From a distance of about 10 miles, the slide looked like a funnel, narrowing into a culvert below. It cut a giant channel through trees. The creek that once gradually flowed down the ridge now spurted down like a waterfall. Roads in the area, where some cattle grazed, were muddy from rain.
A sheriff’s helicopter surveyed the slide area early Monday. Authorities erected a roadblock outside Collbran, a town of about 700 people, to keep onlookers from the slide area, situated near Salt Creek road and Vega Reservoir.
“This slide is unbelievably big,” Mesa County Lt. Phil Stratton said.
Meanwhile, the affected well pad hosts three active natural gas wells located along Salt Creek Road, West Slope COGA spokesman David Ludlam said in a news release.
“The wells were monitored remotely using telemetry and on Sunday showed no signs of spills or releases,” the release said.
“Out of an abundance of caution, companies shut down the natural gas wells manually also conducting a physical assessment of the equipment,” Ludlam said. “Connective pipelines associated with the natural gas wells were depressurized and drained.
A limited number of nonproducing natural gas wells may have also been affected, but pose no immediate risk factors to the public or environment, according to WSCOGA.
Ludlam said that natural gas companies follow stringent emergency protocols during major weather events.
“We are pleased with preliminary reports showing minimally affected oil and gas production equipment,” he said, adding Oxy manually shut down the small number of wells at risk.
“We believe all potentially affected natural gas locations are secure,” Ludlam said.
Operators are also monitoring all Plateau Valley locations this week ensuring no new slide movements are detected.
He said the association and its member companies will stay in communication with the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission and local emergency response officials if the mudslide poses any additional risks to natural gas wells.
Ludlam said the industry is also determining how it can assist residents of Plateau Valley in the search and rescue and cleanup efforts.
West Slope COGA plans to establish a “Caring for Collbran” response fund to coordinate industry donations.
While the surrounding area is popular place for fishing, hiking and camping, the slide hit on land with an access gate that isn’t open to the public. No one else is believed missing, and no homes were damaged.
Hilkey said he’d received a telephone call from authorities in Washington state, where a March 22 landslide swept a square mile of dirt, sand and silt through a neighborhood in Oso, about an hour northeast of Seattle. That slide leveled homes and killed at least 43 people.