Silt resident complains of drilling, cancer-causing compounds

By David O. Williams
Real AspenJuly 1, 2010

A property owner south of Silt says benzene and other cancer-causing compounds continue to seep into West Divide Creek and that state and county officials are engaging in the same sort of regulatory denial that led to the Deepwater Horizon oil and gas spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lisa Bracken was recently denied by the Garfield County commissioners in her bid to get the county to ask state regulators to reinstate a drilling moratorium in the area until the source of groundwater contamination is determined and the problem is fixed.

“I certainly am disappointed in how they decided to rule,” Bracken said recently, detailing her bureaucratic battle that dates back to the first spill in the area in 2004. Despite the state determining a faulty EnCana well was the source and levying a then-record $378,000 fine, Bracken says the problem persists to this day.

Only the state can halt drilling

Her recent efforts have focused on the reinstatement of a year-long moratorium imposed after the first seep in order to head off EnCana’s plans to drill up to 10 new natural gas wells in the area. State officials lifted the moratorium after determining it was safe to continue drilling.

“We don’t have standing as individuals, and I actually went through a protest period from the get-go on locations of these down-holes at a hearing,” Bracken said. “Then it was moved to the pad and I protested that, and then it finally came down to protesting the installation of the wells themselves, and I could only offer public comment [to the state].

“So I was really depending on the county for their standing in this, and it just makes no sense that [EnCana] would drill on top of an ongoing seep where there’s benzene and things present.”

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) permits and regulates natural gas drilling in the state, and county officials have limited regulatory authority but can offer recommendations. The county will ask the COGCC for a meeting to address Bracken’s concerns but stopped short of pushing for reinstatement of the drilling moratorium.

According to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the county also wants the COGCC to look at 97 older gas wells in the area and consider bringing them to up to current state standards to determine if they may be contributing to the ongoing methane seep.

And the county wants the findings of their own consultant, Dr. Geoffrey Thyne – who determined that natural gas drilling was the likely cause of the contamination – given more credence. State consultants have determined the methane is naturally occurring.

Colorado and the Gulf

“I can go along with all of the recommendations, except the moratorium,” Republican county commissioner John Martin said at a recent hearing. “We have to think about the economy and jobs. That has to be a factor.”

Martin is a strong backer of Garfield County’s oil and gas industry, which waged a campaign on his behalf during the 2008 election cycle. Martin denied coordination or knowledge of the activities of 527 groups or 501(c)4 nonprofits in the last election, and decried outside influences in a local election, including environmental groups campaigning for Democrats.

Democrats countered the oil and gas industry bought the election and will try again this November in the re-election bid of current Democratic county commissioner Trési Houpt, who also serves on the COGCC board. Bracken didn’t comment on the politics involved, but did draw a parallel to the situation in the Gulf of Mexico, where President Barack Obama has imposed a six-month drilling moratorium.

“It’s very correlative to what’s happening in the Gulf,” Bracken said. “The president issued a moratorium. It doesn’t make sense to go in and drill where there’s this gushing and things going on and that’s exactly what’s going on here. [Contamination] already happened once [in 2004] and it’s going to be exacerbated.”

The correct way to respond to broached water sources

County oil and gas liaison Judy Jordan reportedly expressed dismay at the state’s unwillingness to meet again with Thyne and go over his peer-reviewed work on the Divide Creek seep. Thyne is a respected former Colorado School of Mines professor who said his job was threatened by oil and gas officials as a result of comments he’s made criticizing some industry practices.

“I have never seen a state agency behave in this fashion,” Jordan reportedly wrote in a memo to the county commissioners. “The correct way to respond to our broaching of water issues would have been to call a meeting with us and [Dr. Thyne] to discuss his report and any perceived flaws or differences in interpretation.”

COGCC director David Neslin said in an email to the Colorado Independent that the state has given plenty of consideration to Thyne’s findings.

“I respectfully disagree with Ms. Jordan’s characterization of this matter,” Neslin wrote. “Rather than sit down behind closed doors, the COGCC held an open public meeting in Glenwood Springs last summer for Dr. Thyne to present his concerns directly to our commissioners and for Garfield County to present any other information that they wished.

“Several other hydrologists also participated in that meeting, including our consultants, S. S. Papadopulos & Associates, the firm that compiled much of the data that Dr. Thyne relied upon. We took Dr. Thyne’s concerns seriously and devoted substantial time and effort to evaluating them. But we could not substantiate his conclusions – nor could Papadopulos, which collected much of the data.”

Still, Neslin said the COGCC is open to any additional information from Thyne or the county.

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