Boulder County floods: What’s in the water?

A look at potential flood-related impacts on human health and the environment

Flooded gas wells in eastern Boulder County
Photo by Joel Dyer

This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.

The first dangers posed by the recent flooding were obvious: loss of life and property due to swift-moving water.

But now that the waters are slowing and the levels are in decline, it’s time to begin the difficult task of assessing the potential damage that the flooding has caused — and may yet cause — to human health and the environment, and what we can do to protect ourselves.

First and foremost, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and health departments at the local and state level are strongly encouraging people to stay out of floodwater if at all possible. If contact is unavoidable, wearing the proper protective clothing is encouraged, and there is good reason for such precaution.

According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), “Floodwater often contains infectious organisms, including intestinal bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella and Shigella; Hepatitis A Virus; and agents of typhoid, paratyphoid and tetanus.”

If persons in flood-affected areas experience symptoms such as fever, nausea, muscle aches, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, they should seek immediate medical attention.

Most flood-related illnesses are the result of ingesting water or food that has been contaminated with bacteria, viruses or microbes. This most often occurs because hands that have touched contaminated water or soil are not properly washed before eating. Tetanus, which may be the most serious of the flood-related illnesses, is the exception. Tetanus most often enters the body through an open wound or scratch that has been exposed to flood waters, mud or soil. The symptoms of tetanus, in order of occurrence, according to the Mayo clinic website, are, “Spasms and stiffness in your jaw muscles, stiffness of your neck muscles, difficulty swallowing, stiffness of your abdominal muscles, painful body spasms lasting for several min utes, typically triggered by minor occurrences, such as a draft, loud noise, physical touch or light. Other signs and symptoms may include: fever, sweating, elevated blood pressure and rapid heart rate.”

These are the usual, naturally occurring contaminants found in floodwaters and soils, but they are hardly the only dangers now lurking in Boulder County’s flooded areas. The flood that has washed over the Front Range and Northeastern plains of Colorado has also carried with it unknown quantities of chemical and industrial wastes that can also pose health hazards.

Starting in the mountains west of town, it is probable that the days of continuous rain leading up to the flood washed a good deal of heavy metals, such as lead and arsenic, out of the many former mining operations, particularly those affected previously by the Fourmile Fire.

In 2011, Sheila Murphy, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who has been studying Fourmile Creek since the first rainfall following the Fourmile Fire, told Boulder Weekly that one of her primary concerns for water quality was heavy metals from the mining operations if a substantial rain were to occur.

She said at that time, “The interesting thing about the Fourmile Creek watershed is historically it was a major mining area, so there are quite a number of mine tailings piles and waste rock in the watershed that, without the trees around and grass and shrubs to protect those piles, there’s a concern that if there was a really big rainstorm or something it could wash a lot of metals that are typically in higher amounts in tailings pilings into the creek, which would also be a problem for drinking water issues and for aquatic life in the stream.”

This was a really big rainstorm.

Mud deposited by the flood contains contaminants that were in the floodwaters. | Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Within the cities and towns of the Front Range, a variety of contaminants have been released into the floodwaters. Gasoline and oils containing benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals have, without question due to the size and scope of this event, escaped their confines from flooded gas stations, vehicle compounds and stranded vehicles themselves. We won’t be able to assess the quantities of such releases for days or even weeks.

Storm runoff itself is also a potent contaminant, full of things like benzene and oil as it washes such pollution from our roadways, driveways and garage floors.

Sewage in the water, the mud and even dried dirt left behind after a few days in the sun also poses a health risk. According to reports and aerial photos, wastewater treatment facilities in Boulder, Lyons, Longmont, Hygiene and Evans were flooded, and neighborhoods all along the Front Range, including Boulder, have reported broken lines and sewage backups in homes hit by the floods.

Areas known to have carcinogenic contamination in groundwater, such as the Dushanbe Teahouse property, the Syntex plume and the old Beech aircraft site on Highway 36 will also be getting flushed out by this event, since groundwater levels are close to or at the surface.

Other areas where toxins are being or have been stored will no doubt be adding to the danger posed by this toxic flood soup.

A passerby told BW that he saw bluish-gray water coming over the top of the large dam near 75th and Valmont that holds the lakes associated with Xcel’s Valmont Station power plant. BW contacted Xcel on Sept. 17 to confirm the report and was told that the company was not able to confirm or deny the report at that time. However, company spokesman Gabriel Romero did confirm that the company had been releasing large amounts of water from its lakes into the surrounding watershed due to the flooding. Exactly what contaminants are in the water of these lakes has never been made public, despite the fact that the water from the lakes is released into the surrounding rivers and ditches every year.

We know that water containing lead, arsenic and low-level radiation was intentionally dumped into the lakes for decades by Allied Chemical’s former milling operation at Valmont Butte. In addition, Xcel had a permit for releasing water that contained higher-than-allowed quantities of selenium. And the area on the north side of the lakes has been used as a fly-ash dump for years. Fly ash is a waste product of coal-fired plants and contains low levels of mercury and other contaminants. Any run-off from the fly-ash areas would likely go into the lakes or escape the Xcel property as runoff in other directions.

The Valmont Butte property owned by the city contains soil with high levels of lead. The contaminated soil on the north side of the butte on the slopes above Valmont Road was left in place rather than being cleaned up during the property’s remediation. The city claimed that the lead-tainted soil would be held in place by plants growing on the steep sides of the butte. But when BW examined this area during the flooding, it was clear that the lead-laced soil was being washed into the drainage ditches and then carried into the watershed.

Part of the remediation at Valmont Butte was to create holding ponds that could capture runoff from the massive disposal pit that holds as much as an estimated million tons of radioactive and heavy metal contaminated soils. The city failed to provide information about if those retention ponds overflowed by press time.

In surrounding communities such as Commerce City, aerial views of the flooding revealed that numerous berms around large chemical and petroleum tanks had been washed away, along with whatever toxins they had been holding. It is unknown at this time what contaminants were released into the floodwaters.

A flooded oil operation in Boulder County | Photo by Joel Dyer

A dam broke at a lake on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, sending waters flooding across that property, a large parcel of land that at one time was considered to be one of the most contaminated places in the world due to having been a dump for such contaminants as nerve gas and other military waste from facilities like Rocky Flats.

Yet another post-flood environmental issue that communities in the affected areas will be forced to deal with is mobile home disposal. Many of the older manufactured homes that have been devastated by the flood contain asbestos. For that reason, disposing of mobile homes can be difficult and expensive.

According to FEMA, just two feet of water will typically cause damage amounting to 80 percent of a mobile home’s full value. In deeper water, such as what hit our area trailer parks, the home is a total loss. Just disposing of a ruined mobile home containing asbestos can cost upwards of $6,000. This amount is generally more than what those living in mobile homes get in relief from FEMA, meaning that many owners of damaged mobile homes will have to choose between using their relief money to establish a new home for their family and disposing of their old home.

If past floods around the country are any indication, then many, if not most, of the damaged mobile homes containing asbestos will ultimately wind up abandoned, allowing the asbestos to become airborne, which can create a potential health hazard for those living nearby.

Flooded oil and gas operations are also of great concern to county residents. With more than 20,000 producing wells in Weld and Boulder counties, the ultimate impact from toxins escaping from these flooded industrial operations may never be accurately quantified.

At this point, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which regulates the industry in our state, can only say that thousands of wells have been affected by the flood and will need to be inspected to determine what may have been, or is still being, leaked into the floodwaters.

Such inspection will likely be left to self-reporting by the industry, however, due to a severe lack of state inspectors. You may recall that Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration recently helped to defeat a proposed bill that would have added enough state inspectors to actually inspect the state’s 47,000- plus oil and gas wells on a somewhat regular basis. Historically, self-inspection programs run by any polluting industry, including petroleum, have badly failed both public health and the environment.

Two of the area’s largest oil and gas operators, Encana and Anadarko, claim to have shut in approximately 1,000 wells between them as a result of the flood, and other companies report shutting in hundreds of wells as well. Shut-in means that the companies intentionally stopped producing from those wells. In various media reports, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) and the companies claim that shutting in the wells has prevented flooded wells from releasing contaminants.

While it’s a good step to have taken, it’s still unclear how effective shutting in the wells will be at preventing the escape of contaminants. That’s because many of the wells have been damaged, which means that pipelines may have been broken and tanks lost.

At this point it is simply too early to even estimate the environmental damage from flooded oil and gas operations. The COGCC is actively collecting information from producers and has stated that it will eventually release that information to the public. So at best, we will only be told by the state what the industry wants us to know.

For now, we do know from the photos being posted by citizens online and those taken by news organizations that many wells and production platforms have been damaged, some severely. In addition, large tanks that once contained oil, gas condensate and produced water containing fracking fluids have broken loose from their platforms and have floated away on the floodwaters, spilling their toxic contents as they go. How many tanks? We just don’t know and can’t estimate at this time.

We will also never know all of the potential hazards from such a flood as this. A quick look at the FEMA floodplain maps shows that all kinds of waste dumps, oil and gas pits, power-generating stations, areas of contaminated groundwater and even a Department of Energy (DOE) facility that stores spent nuclear fuel from the old Fort St.Vrain reactor near Platteville are, in many instances, now sitting under water.

BW asked the DOE about its spent nuclear fuel site and was told that the facility had experienced no issues as a result of the flooding.

What we do know is that the floodwaters, the mud and even the dried soil now contain a wide variety of contaminants that can make us sick. As cleanup operations continue, be aware that the dust from those operations on roads and in homes is a potential hazard containing contaminants as well. Adequate face masks are recommended to be worn during cleanup. The FEMA website has more information on which masks are best suited to the task.

Mud and dirt from the flood is contaminated. | Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Water wells and even groundwater aquifers may also have become contaminated due to the flood, and it’s best to get them checked out and boil water until you know they’re clean. As reported on page 25, we need to avoid eating anything from a garden that may have been in contact with floodwaters. And finally, soap is our friend right now — use it often, particularly before eating.

In the weeks ahead, as more information becomes available, we will be reporting in much more detail about the environmental hazards resulting from this tragic event. For now, be cautious and stay healthy.


This story is part of Our Road to Recovery, our coverage of the 2013 Boulder County floods.