Garfield County, state officials mull fate of gas drilling pit liners |

Garfield County, state officials mull fate of gas drilling pit liners

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

RIFLE, Colo. – Garfield County and the state’s gas and oil overseers are deep in talks about what to do with huge rubbery sheets covered with sludge, some of it apparently toxic, that are a byproduct of the gas drilling industry.

Used in gas-drilling pits around Garfield County, the impermeable liners, which one official described as “about as big as a bus” when wadded up for disposal, may end up being buried in place rather than disposed of in a local landfill, under an idea now being floated by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Or, the liners may end up in a specially designed landfill site built just for that purpose, as a way of keeping potentially hazardous hydrocarbons and other substances from getting into regional groundwater supplies.

The liners have been banned from the county’s landfill facilities since early July, when the Garfield County commissioners were told they are too bulky, and possibly too toxic, for the landfill staff to deal with effectively.

Prior to this year, the liners typically had been left in place once gas drilling operators were finished using a pit, which are used for various purposes in the drilling operation according to the county’s oil and gas liaison, Judy Jordan. The pit was simply filled in, with dirt piled on top of the liner.

But new rules drawn up by the state commission require that the liners be pulled once the pit is no longer in use, and Garfield County had permitted them to be disposed of in the landfill.

Currently there are an estimated 1,700 gas wells operating in the county, with up to 7,000 more anticipated in the coming years, although there are no estimates for how many pit liners may require disposal in the future.

In early July, Jordan and the county’s chief public works official, Marvin Stephens, reported that dealing with the liners was proving to be troublesome.

According to Stephens, if the liners are fed into the landfill’s compacting equipment, they clog up the works and “they just come out in a big old blob. Shredding is the only answer.”

Stephens said the Mesa County landfill can handle the liners, and County Commissioner John Martin said that a landfill in Utah is specifically designed to dispose of such material, although in both cases officials conceded that transportation would be both costly and difficult.

The commissioners ruled they would no longer be accepted at the West Garfield County landfill.

In response, Jordan told the Post Independent this week, “The COGCC thought, well, maybe we’ll just let them bury them again,” which once was the accepted practice.

But Jordan and others believe that, given that tests have shown the liners are caked with sludge bearing such toxic substances as barium and different forms of benzene, disposal on site might not be a good idea. Benzene is known to cause cancer.

Attempts to reach Oil and Gas Commission Executive Director Dave Neslin on Tuesday, for comments on this story, were not successful.

Jordan said that the use of liners is not uniform among gas well operators, so she cannot be sure which types of pits have liners and which do not, meaning she is not entirely certain which liners might be contaminated.

“I haven’t been able to get a real clear picture of when some companies use liners and when they don’t,” she explained, adding that operators “make the call” as to the use of liners in the field.

As for the likelihood of groundwater contamination, Jordan said, “In some cases it’s pretty low. In some cases it’s not,” depending on such variables as the depth of the water table and the permeability of the surface, as well as the amount of sludge left on each liner.

She said there are ongoing talks between the state commission and Garfield County, in advance of a COGCC meeting in September at which the subject of pit liners is expected to come up.

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