Gas well emissions continue while farmsteader mounts case

Rod Brueske and his son, Arden, in June 2012
Photo by Hadley Vandiver

Even as Rod Brueske continues to hone his argument that Encana’s operations at a gas well near his house have posed an environmental and health risk, he’s seeing ongoing off-gassing at the well near his Longmont-area home.

As Anadarko cleaned out supply lines for natural gas and installed new receivers, Brueske says, “They went out there and cracked open a valve and were releasing raw methane and whatever liquids are in the lines, that vaporizes into the air, too.”

Brueske videotaped an off-gassing event at the Ross G Unit 1 well near his house on the morning of May 29. His kids were still sleeping, the windows in their bedrooms open to let in the morning air. The camera’s audio picks up the hissing sound from a well he estimates is 500 feet from his back door. As he walks toward the well, Brueske narrates, “There they are, venting raw methane into my atmosphere,” and describes the sound as loud as a jet engine and the air as having a metallic taste.

The event was later described as Anadarko clearing out supply lines and putting in new receivers, and activity that involves releasing raw methane. His inquiries to Boulder County and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff returned some information on what was released, including the materials safety data sheet from the Kerr-McGee Corporation for non-odorized natural gas. He requested that information to take it to the doctor after his wife and daughter felt ill in the days following the event. It lists methane, ethane, nitrogen and propane as the primary composition of the chemicals, and lists asphyxia as a potential health effect of inhaling the chemical, with symptoms including rapid breathing, headaches, dizziness, visual disturbances, weakness, tremors, unconsciousness and death “depending on concentration and duration of exposure.”

In studies on dogs exposed to butane, the MSDS says, exposures of 200,000-250,000 parts per million were lethal, and that “there was only a small margin of safety between the anesthetic and lethal concentration.” Ethane also acts as an asphyxiant.

Brueske called the county sheriff and County Commissioner Elise Jones, who returned his call about the event suggesting that he call the number for the public health department air and water emissions office. He did. The call went to an answering machine.

When he did get Mark McMillan, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Air Pollution Control Division supervisor for Oil and Gas Production Processing, on the phone, McMillan told him the well operator, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, does not have to get a permit through the division for an event because it’s a temporary activity.

“We permit sources and we permit equipment.

Those permits are not classified or characterized as temporary,” says Christopher Dann, communications liaison for the state’s air pollution division. For a sporadically occurring event, like the off-gassing Brueske witnessed, whether there’s a permit issued depends on the event, Dann says. Oil and gas production activities have a variety of jurisdictions, he adds, and this may have gone to the COGCC.

Brueske argues that, at the very least, he should be notified of these events before they happen so he has a choice to leave his house before they occur.

Brueske filed an application for a hearing in December with the COGCC regarding their enforcement actions against Encana after an inspection by state staff — prompted by a complaint he’d filed about odors and a metallic taste in the air — found the well out of compliance (see Boulder Weekly May 2). The inspectors, staff of the Air Pollution Control Division, reported that Encana was not keeping air emissions to a minimum. The emissions control device on the Ross G Unit 1 well was too small and as a result was leaking condensate. Encana replaced the device and was offered a reduced settlement of $53,900 as a fine.

Brueske, in his application to the state, argued that Encana, based on documentation by the COGCC and CDPHE, was in violation of the rules for air quality protection, significantly impacting the health and welfare of his family, and that the fines assessed are based on an outdated system and were inadequate based on the risks posed to his family’s health. He encouraged the COGCC to update the system for violations and fines, and formally requested a hearing to address his protest. He called Encana’s actions negligent, careless and dangerous and has asked, as relief, that Encana plug and abandon, never to re-enter, the Ross G Unit 1 well, in addition to fitting wells within half a mile of his property with the latest emission suppression equipment.

Earthworks, a non-profit that works solely on the effects of resource extraction on communities and the environment, released an enforcement report on the COGCC in March 2012 that makes a similar case. Their report states that the agency lacks capacity to complete inspections, violations are seeing inconsistent enforcement as well as inadequate reporting and fines for those violations are weak and rarely issued. The COGCC can levy a maximum fine of $1,000 per day (Brueske’s complaint was eligible for a maximum of $15,000 per day because it was a violation of the Colorado Air Pollution Prevention Control Act, which has different fines set).

“It was put in statute, as I understand it, it went in in the 1950s and it hasn’t been changed since,” says Bruce Baizel, energy program director at Earthworks. The organization has attempted to raise those fines, but seen opposition from the oil and gas industry.

Other states with oil and gas activity have increased their fines. Pennsylvania’s increased to $25,000 plus $1,000 per day for conventional wells and $75,000 plus $5,000 per day for unconventional wells — fracked wells.

The manner in which complaints like Brueske’s are handled have also started to raise concerns about the way the COGCC functions.

“If you’re a surface owner and land owner, a home owner, and something changes and your kids get sick or your well goes black after they start drilling near you, which is where we often get complaints, someone will call us and say, ‘What do I do?’” Baizel says. “Your initial response is usually you should file a complaint with the agency and have them look at what happens and try to get the problem fixed that way. For years the agency response was pretty unsatisfactory to the homeowner. It was either ‘We couldn’t find anything’ or ‘We talked to the company and it won’t happen again,’ and that has been sort of the culture over the years, and that’s why it becomes important, the transparency issue becomes very important because people have lost trust in the agency to take care of the issue in the way that satisfies them rather than satisfying the company, and that’s why this discussion is in the legislature. If you’re a homeowner, you need to be able to see what happens and why to your complaint, and that’s difficult to track actually in the Colorado website structure. That’s the basic issue. The agency should be responsive to the public as well as to the industry and that’s not been clear that they are.”

Following Brueske’s Dec. 31 submittal of that application, Encana has replied with a series of motions to dismiss which were eventually withdrawn (see Boulder Weekly May 9).

In their answer to his application, Encana denies ever having installed inadequate equipment at the well and that any alleged emissions from the dates surrounding Brueske’s complaint were harmful to public health, safety or welfare, though it admits the COGCC issued a Notice of Alleged Violation for Complaint #200348796. (That document does not immediately appear in a search of COGCC records for documents related to the Ross G Unit 1 well.)

Encana’s listed defenses include that there’s no proximate cause for the acts and omissions of Encana and the alleged damages, that the events described were not significant adverse environmental incidents and that the Commission does not have the statutory or regulatory authority to require the relief Brueske requested.

Brueske has absorbed the legal responsibility for this case. In a hearing that previously was between the COGCC and Encana, it is now Brueske and Encana.

In previously reported cases in Colorado, residents have been offered hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlement offers from oil and gas companies or seen oil and gas companies buy them out of their property altogether — with the stipulation they agree to a nondisclosure agreement. It’s almost impossible to know how many people have signed those agreements, Baizel says, because they can’t talk about it. The agreements also impede the tracking of ongoing health effects.

“For many years, most of the oil and gas development in Colorado was not in highly populated areas and now in the last few years they’ve gotten into a lot of people’s backyards,” Baizel says. “I think that has brought some of these issues to the forefront in a way that matters politically and a lot of voters are being impacted, so I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this in the legislature. … It always matters when you’re impacting a lot of voters, so I think it will continue to be an issue until there’s a sense that the agency is really doing something about it, including the penalties, the enforcement and the complaints, and until they do it’s going to be a headache for everybody, literally and figuratively, whether it’s from the emissions or just from hassle factor.”