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State official: Oil and gas spills have declined

John Colson
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

RIFLE, Colo. – The frequency and number of spills and releases connected to the oil and gas industry dropped significantly in 2011 compared to 2010, a state official said on Thursday.

The reduction of incidents led Chris Canfield, an environmental protection specialist with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to praise the industry for improving its record.

Canfield said the industry reported 54 spills and releases in 2011, compared to 99 incidents reported in 2010. It’s “clearly an improvement over what happened in 2010,” he said, and an indication the industry is learning and improving as time passes.

A spill is a one-time, isolated incident, while a release is an ongoing, repeating incident over time, he said.

But Canfield conceded that the COGCC office in Rifle has a hard time covering its territory – the entire northwest quadrant of Colorado – and that spills and releases could occur that are never reported.

Canfield, who works out of an office in Rifle, spoke at a meeting of the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board (EAB), which was set up by the county commissioners to advise the county on energy issues and provide a forum for industry, residents and the county government to meet and interact.

Canfield was speaking on the topic of spills and releases by the natural gas industry, as part of the EAB’s ongoing educational program, which has been part of the organization’s mission since the EAB was created in 2004.

He said the numbers may also be a reflection of the reduced level of drilling and hydraulic fracturing activity.

When spills occur during oil and gas industry activities, such as trucking accidents, leaking pipelines or equipment on the drilling pads, a notice goes out to local and state officials within 24 hours, Canfield said.

The COGCC regulations require that any spill of more than five 42-gallon barrels of liquid, including spills of produced water being stored in lined pits, be reported verbally to the agency within 24 hours. A written followup, he said, must occur within 10 days, on what is known as a Form 19 report.

“Sometimes there is immediate dialogue with the operator,” Canfield explained, “even before a Form 19 comes in.”

Typically, if a spill or release threatens to contaminate a stream, lake, irrigation ditch or a dry gully – Canfield’s office sends an investigator to look over the site and report back.

But if an operator reports that the spill has been confined behind a berm, the problem is considered resolved once the mess has been cleaned up to the satisfaction of COGCC inspectors.

Paperwork associated with spills and releases is logged onto the COGCC website, Canfield said, and is open to public inspection.

If a spill is reported on a state highway, with potential to contaminate a nearby river or creek, other agencies get involved.

For instance, Canfield said, a 1,000-gallon spill on Webster Hill west of Rifle reported on Jan. 13 is being investigated by the Colorado State Patrol.

The spill, which officials believe was a deliberate act of dumping, was a mixture of hydrocarbons and other fluids, according to a report sent to Garfield County Oil and Gas Liaison Kirby Wynn and forwarded to the Post Independent.

The agencies involved in keeping track of the spill, Canfield said, include the state patrol, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In situations involving significant spills, Canfield said, the COGCC can require extra investigation of the matter and, if warranted, enhanced cleanup or other remedial work by the operator.

In some cases, he said, “we can pursue monetary penalties,” including fines assessed against companies found responsible for polluting water resources.

When a board member asked Canfield if he could tell how many spills went unreported, Canfield said he believes his figures are “pretty close” to showing the complete picture.

He noted that there are only five COGCC inspectors for the entire northwest quadrant of the state, and there is the potential for underreporting by the industry operators.

“I can’t think of a single situation in six years where I’ve suspected someone was trying to hide something from me,” Canfield said. “I’m very confident we’re seeing an effort entirely in good faith.”

Regarding a spill reported last month by the WPX Energy company (formerly known as Williams Production RMP), Canfield was asked to explain the company’s method of cleaning up the spill.

The cleanup, according to Canfield, involved pouring clean dirt on top of an area where a spill had happened, essentially blending the dirt until it met COGCC standards.

Canfield noted that, “In some cases, blending is an appropriate way of dealing with it.”

Fiona Lloyd, a critic of the gas industry who lives on Silt Mesa, said Canfield’s explanation is like “resetting the clock back to zero with every spill,” in terms of monitoring for ongoing contamination.

Chemicals continue to build up with subsequent spills, she said.

“It’s still there,” admitted Canfield. The concern is the concentrations for permissible levels set by agencies such as the CDPHE and the EPA.

“Many of these compounds are degrading over time,” he said, meaning the compounds become harmless before they can migrate down to groundwater.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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