State regulators receive first official report of oil spill in wake of Colorado flooding

Colorado residents document widespread damage to state's energy infrastructure

By David O. Williams
Real AspenSeptember 19, 2013
Anecdotal and photographic evidence of widespread impacts to the state’s oil and gas industry from last week’s flooding in northeastern Colorado have been circulating for days, but Wednesday marked the first official report of a flood-related oil spill to state regulators.

“To date, we are aware of two tank batteries that were damaged by flood waters and have associated light-oil releases,” Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum reported on Wednesday. “The releases occurred in flood waters associated with the South Platte River and the St. Vrain River.”

According to a spokesman for the state’s chief oil and gas regulatory agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), 125 barrels of oil (5,250 gallons) spilled just south of Milliken, Colo.

“This is one of the areas seriously impacted by the flood,” COGCC spokesman Todd Hartman said in an email release Wednesday. “Anadarko is responding and has absorbent booms in the water. The COGCC [Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission] responded this afternoon and will, along with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), continue to monitor the cleanup work.”

A flooded well near the Cache la Poudre River.
Therese Gilbert/Weld Air and Water

Milliken is located in Weld County, which was one of the hardest hit by flooding caused by torrential rains that started more than a week ago along the state’s Front Range. Weld County has 20,554 active oil and gas wells – more than a third of the statewide total of 51,228 – and has seen an unprecedented boom in oil production in the Denver-Julesburg Basin in recent years.

By comparison, Garfield County on the Western Slope is second in the state with 10,444 active wells, and Yuma County -- to the east of Weld and also impacted by flooding -- is third in the state with 3,885 active wells.

So far the COGCC hasn’t confirmed any other spills reported by oil and gas operators as a result of the floods, but there have been widespread social media reports from area residents showing damaged storage facilities and well pads.

Citizen activist groups that monitor drilling operations, such as Weld Air and Water, have been loading pictures of flooded oil and gas wells, chemical storage facilities and wastewater and chemical holding tanks on Facebook and other websites, demanding more action from state regulators.

Hartman on Wednesday could not immediately confirm reports of two natural gas releases involving flood-related problems with Noble Energy wellheads. CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley said on Wednesday he had not heard of any other reports of oil and gas spills as a result of the flooding.

“The Colorado flood has affected only the DJ [Denver-Julesburg] Basin operations [in northeast Colorado], with 1800-plus wells shut in and over 600 personnel monitoring and addressing affected oil and gas operations,” according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), an industry trade group.

A small percentage of the chemicals used in drilling operations and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are carcinogenic, prompting concerns from environmental activists and some healthcare providers about both short- and long-term health risks. That concern is magnified, they say, by potential spills in heavily populated or agricultural areas.

“Drilling and fracking in floodplains is extremely risky and only amplifies the public health and environmental concerns associated with this dangerous industrial activity,” said Gary Wockner of Denver-based Clean Water Action.

“The CDPHE [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] and COGCC should inspect every well that was flooded, require that the industry clean up every pollution plume, and create new regulations that better protect the public and the environment in and near floodplains.”

COGA President and CEO Tisha Schuller said in a press release Monday that the industry needs more specifics in order to fully respond to citizen reports.

A damaged storage tank in Evans.
Carl Erickson/Weld Air and Water

“We have seen the social media frenzy regarding pictures of oil and gas facilities ‘underwater,’” Schuller wrote. “While the pictures seem extraordinary, there is no data or specifics provided. In order to responsibly provide information, we ask that individuals or officials, who have photos, please share these, with specific locations, so we can provide an operational status of that location.

“Also, if the there are other concerns or information about a specific oil and gas location, please provide as much detail as possible so we can respond. Please send any photos, with specific locations or concerns to info@coga.org.”

Hartman said the COGCC is tracking reports and collecting data on impacted locations, working closely with industry, local officials and the public. He added the agency is using GIS (geographic information system) mapping to identify oil and gas locations in flooded areas of the South Platte River and its tributaries and forming teams of field inspectors, environmental protection specialists and engineers to focus on areas north and south of the river.

The COGCC is also asking residents to email them specific reports of any suspected oil and gas contamination.

Drilling in the Wattenberg Field of the DJ Basin northeast of Denver has pushed Colorado oil production to its highest levels since 1957, with 2012 increasing 25 percent over 2011, which saw a 20 percent increase over 2010. Fracking has opened up vast new oil reserves in the area.

Doug Hock, a spokesman for Encana – one of the largest operators in the area – said on Wednesday his company has shut in 245 of its 1,241 wells in the basin.

“We’re using GIS to help prioritize lower-lying facilities that may likely have greater impacts,” Hock said in an email. “We’re keeping COGCC updated as we move forward with these inspections. We are unaware of any resulting spills at this time.”

Anadarko reported on its website that the company has shut in 650 of its 5,800 wells in the Wattenberg Field.

COGA officials have not responded directly to requests for comment, but CDPHE’s Salley said COGA has been coordinating with the state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Response Center to “address any environmental impacts. Status of facilities ranges from those unaffected, to those in standing water, and those in moving water.”

Salley added that “many contaminants, such as raw sewage, as well as potential releases of chemicals from homes, businesses and industry, may be contained in the floodwaters. People are encouraged to stay out of the water as much as possible … and wash frequently with warm water and soap” if they do come in contact with contaminated water.

A spokesman for the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment did not return a call requesting comment.

Power plants in the area have not been impacted by flooding, according to an Xcel Energy spokesman.

“So far we haven’t experienced any generation issues due to the flood,” said Xcel’s Gabriel Romero, adding that the flooding of the St. Vrain River through Platteville did not damage the company’s gas-fired power plant there or a nearby storage facility for 14 tons of spent nuclear fuel from the decommissioned Fort St. Vrain nuclear power plant.

“No issues so far,” Romero said. “We have not escalated our situational alerts thus far, meaning at this point we are not overly concerned with the facility.”

Xcel, however, has been dealing with natural gas pipeline breaks resulting from the flood.

“This historic flood has caused extensive damage to our natural gas delivery system,” the company reported in a news release on Wednesday. “We have identified about 20 miles of natural gas pipe and thousands of natural gas and electric meters that must be replaced due to water damage. About 4,460 customers are without natural gas service at this time.”


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