Garfield County calls for action on contaminated springs
November 3, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A Garfield County commissioner on Monday accused the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) of “not doing its job” with regard to the contamination of a spring, apparently from nearby gas drilling activities.
In addition, Commissioner Mike Samson joined Commissioner John Martin in agreeing to send a resolution to the COGCC urging that something be done quickly to clean up the contamination at the Prather springs.
Commission Tresi Houpt, who serves on the COGCC, excused herself from the discussion to avoid a conflict of interest. But, speaking from a seat in the gallery, she urged her fellow commissioners to “do what you need to do” in order to call attention to the situation.
The discussions resolved around a May 30, 2008, incident, when outfitter Ned Prather was hospitalized after being poisoned by water he drank from the faucet of his backcountry cabin, located north of Interstate 70 in between DeBeque and Parachute in western Garfield County.
Subsequent testing of the spring that feeds the cabin revealed the presence of a compound known as BTEX, which contains benzene, a known carcinogen, among other “volatile organic compounds,” according to reports on the matter.
After examining months worth of investigations by the COGCC and the various gas drilling operators working wells in the area, a consultant reported in September of this year that the contamination “likely” came from drilling rigs.
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According to the report, the types of chemicals found in the springs matched the types of chemicals used in the drilling operations of Williams and OXY, two prominent gas companies.
The consultants also found “inconsistencies” in the earlier investigations by the gas companies themselves, and recommended further monitoring of the situation. This would include soil samples, water samples and tests to determine whether the plume of contaminants has spread beyond the immediate area around the springs.
But, according to Dick Prather (Ned’s brother) and attorney Richard Djokic, there is no plan for such monitoring and testing.
And while the Prather brothers were assured that a cleanup plan would be in place by last June, there is no such plan in existence that they know of, Djokic said.
Doffing her COGCC hat to resume her commissioner’s role, Houpt said of the situation, “As local officials, it’s not our responsibility to enforce [the COGCC’s regulations governing the industry]. It is our responsibility to represent the folks who live in our county.”
Houpt also stressed that it is not that the members of the COGCC “don’t care” about the Prathers’ fate, indicating that the issues are complex, and finding out who is responsible is time-consuming.
Judy Jordan, the county’s liaison for the oil and gas industry, at one point told the commissioners, “This doesn’t have to do with the commission, it has to do with the staff.”
She said the COGCC staff should have long ago recommended to the oil and gas commission that, regardless of where the contamination came from, the state should clean up the mess so the Prathers can salvage their livelihood as outfitters.
Speaking after the meeting, Jordan said that once it is known where, exactly, the contamination came from, the state can then go to the appropriate company for payment of the cleanup costs.
Representatives of Williams and OXY reported that their companies are doing all they can to determine the source of the contamination, although they indicated that the problems did not come from their companies.
The resolution, Samson said, should pass on the idea that the state should look into using an “environmental impact fund,” created by taxes and fees collected from the industry and controlled by the COGCC, for the cleanup of the contamination.
Djokic, following the meeting, said of the commissioners’ resolution, “We’re encouraged by the action of the commission.”
He and Prather together said the state needs to examine the soils downhill from the springs, which ultimately feed into Parachute Creek and the Colorado River, to see how far the contamination has spread.
And Prather suggested that monitoring wells be sunk down to the aquifer level near the Williams and OXY well pads, to determine if the contamination starts there or somewhere else, a suggestion he said the state has already rejected, saying, “It’s too expensive to sink a 200-foot well there.”
Visibly unhappy about the fact that he and his brother cannot ply their trade for fear of poisoning their clientele, Prather said, “I guess the frustrating part is that, as landowners, you would think that [the gas companies] would want to be sure they did what was right” as far as impacts on other landowners.