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More spills near Parachute under investigation

Phillip Yates
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

PARACHUTE, Colo. ” State oil and gas regulators are looking at two additional releases of waste that have reportedly affected groundwater northwest of Parachute.

Those two spills occurred about two to three weeks after one man went to the hospital after drinking his cabin’s spring water, which was allegedly contaminated by a release from area drilling operations.

One of the discharges reportedly caused water contaminated by oil and gas waste to emanate from several springs in the area of Cascade Canyon, northwest of Parachute, and to flow into nearby tributaries, according to state records.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is investigating Williams Production RMT and Oxy USA WTP, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp., for an alleged discharge of exploration and production waste that occurred on or about June 23 in the Rock Spring area, according to a state notice of alleged violation issued against both companies. That area is about nine miles northwest of Parachute and near the head of Willow Creek.

The state citation against Oxy and Williams said that a rancher, who grazes livestock in the area, provided Oxy with analytical results for a water sample collected from a spring ” known locally as Rock Spring ” and that benzene and other hydrocarbons were detected in the sample. Benzene is a known carcinogen.

A sheen was visible on water discharging from the spring, according to the violation notices. Oxy, after receiving the landowner’s report, inspected the site and collected samples, installed two “check dams” to stop the flow of water and also vacuumed the water from behind the dams.

The notices indicate that the agency is targeting two Williams wells and one Oxy well in connection with that release.

Donna Gray, a spokeswoman for Williams, said the company just received the notices in connection with the Willow Creek release last Friday. The company had a company representative on site Monday to investigate the situation, she said.

“It is obvious from the language of the [notice] that [Oxy] has been working on the situation,” Gray said of the alleged Willow Creek release.

Attempts to contact Oxy were not immediately successful late Monday.

The second discharge occurred around June 16 near Cascade Canyon, about eight miles northwest of Parachute. Oxy notified the Oil and Gas Commission that water impacted by exploration and production waste was emanating from several springs in the area and “was flowing into and down tributaries to Cascade Canyon,” according to another violation notice filed against Oxy. Williams was not cited in that release.

A field inspector went to the site and noted affected water, stained sediment along the banks of the streams, a strong hydrocarbon odor and potentially impacted vegetation, state records show.

Both companies were cited for allegedly not reporting the two releases, according to the notices.

The commission is requiring that the companies provide a large amount of information associated with the discharges and to consult with surface owners to mitigate impacts to their springs. Those efforts must include fencing impacted surface water to restrict access by livestock and wildlife, and to provide them with a supply of drinking water and other household uses, and water for their livestock.

The releases follow another commission investigation into four companies ” including Williams ” for the release of waste near McKay Gulch about six miles northwest of Parachute. That spill allegedly contaminated a spring that feeds an area outfitter’s cabin.

Water samples collected at the spring showed rates of benzene that exceeded the state’s standards. Benzene is a known carcinogen.

The releases come at a time when Garfield County continues to see a surge of drilling in the county. In 2004, the state issued 796 permits in Garfield County. Since then, the level of permitting in the county has skyrocketed, with the state issuing 2,550 drilling permits in Garfield County in 2007 ” an increase of 220 percent from 2004.

Several large operators and other companies have indicated that they intend to drill in the area ” which is a part of the gas-rich Piceance Basin ” for the next 15 to 25 years. Already, there are about 4,000 active wells in the area.

The spills this month “illustrate the importance of strong set-backs from watersheds and streams,” said Frank Smith, oil shale policy activist and Grand Valley Citizens Alliance organizer for the Western Colorado Congress, an environmental and advocacy group.

Proposed rules for the state’s oil and gas industry are currently the focus of an intense political battle between the state’s energy industry and state regulators and others who support the rules. One draft regulation would prohibit the construction of oil and gas facilities within several hundred feet of “sources of drinking water” for a distance of five miles upstream of a “public water supply intake.”

“The current rulemaking process could provide real protection for our neighbors and our crucial water supplies,” Smith said. “Based upon events like these, it’s evident the current ‘honor system’ doesn’t work, and it’s time for a change.”

Oil and Gas Commission members are expected to vote whether to approve the new rules in mid-August.

pyates@postindependent.com


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