Hydrocarbon spill source near Parachute still not known

John Colson
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

PARACHUTE, Colo. – State and local officials, working with gas-industry crews, continued on Monday to search for the source of nearly 166 barrels of unidentified “hydrocarbon liquids” that have leaked into the ground about four miles up Parachute Creek from town.

The spill, reported March 8 by Williams Midstream and WPX Energy, has contaminated soils and groundwater in the area, officials said on Monday.

Those same officials said that, while the spill is a matter of concern, it represents no immediate hazard to public health.

When asked what, exactly, the compounds are that are leaking into the soils near the creek, Williams spokeswoman Donna Gray said, “It’s unknown at this time.”

She said the compounds fall under the general name of “a liquid natural-gas product,” and that tests are being conducted to determine which type of liquids are involved.

Although the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission learned of the spill via a telephone report from Williams on March 8, the spill had not been recorded on its website as of March 18.

“We don’t have a standard protocol under which we report every spill on the website,” said Matt Lepore, executive director of the commission. He added that Williams sent in an official, formal report of the incident on March 17, a delay that is allowable under state law.

“We’ve had people on the ground there since Saturday [March 16],” Lepore said.

As the search for a leak or other source of the plume goes on, crews also are working to prevent the plume of spilled liquids from reaching Parachute Creek. Crews are digging ditches to divert water and hydrocarbons away from the creek, Lepore said, and deploying booms that can be used to sweep the surface of the water if contamination does occur.

Gray said that on March 8, when the spill was discovered, work crews from Williams were digging around pipelines and buried tanks on March 8 in preparation for installing new pipelines for a “cryogenic plant” that is being added to the Williams equipment. The hydrocarbon liquids began filling up trenches as they were being dug, she said.

Hydrocarbon liquids, the general name for numerous compounds found with or near to oil and gas deposits, were detected on March 13 in the groundwater, according to both Gray and Lepore.

On March 15, the state commission issued a “cease and desist order” to Williams Midstream and WPX Energy, two relatively new companies that split off from Williams Production RMT last year. The commission directed the companies to do everything possible to protect Parachute Creek, which flows through Parachute on its way to the Colorado River.

‘Fortunately for us, they’re very active on it,” said Bob Knight, Parachute’s town manager.

Since the spill was first reported by the media, the volume of liquids vacuumed out of the soil has grown daily, starting at approximately 37 barrels (or roughly 1,500 gallons) on March 16, to roughly 57 barrels (equal to about 2,400 gallons) on March 17.

At the end of Monday, Gray reported, work crews using special “hydro-vac” equipment, had extracted 72 barrels of hydrocarbons, or approximately 3,000 gallons.

That means a total of at least 166 barrels worth of hydrocarbons, equal to nearly 7,000 gallons, have so far been pulled out of the ground.

Gray explained that the work crews were still trying to determine the size of the plume, which was estimated on March 17 to be 200 feet by 170 feet in circumference, and about 14 feet deep.

Knight said on Monday that residents were not overly concerned, at least, “Not at the present time. There hasn’t been much talk yet.”

While residents are watching the incident closely, it appears not to be a threat to the domestic water supplies for either Parachute or Battlement Mesa, a nearby unincorporated community of more than 5,000, or for irrigation water coming off the creek.

The confluence of Parachute Creek with the Colorado River is downstream from water intakes for both communities, according to Knight, and the creek itself has yet to show any signs of contamination.

Knight said the town government has not yet set in place any emergency measures to deal with the possibility of contamination, explaining that until the plume of hydrocarbons reaches Parachute Creek, there is no cause for alarm.

If it does, he said, the town will work with other governments and agencies in the area, and with the industry, to tackle whatever problems come up.

“If it impacts Parachute Creek, we’ll certain initiate calls to those living along the creek,” he said, as well as calls to Parachute residents alerting them of the contamination.