Another horror story from the Weld County oil patch


Here’s another environmental horror story from the Weld County oil patch:

High-rolling energy company with a reach that exceeded its grasp and a fantasy life that it used for a business plan goes belly up. The old boys who started the thing file for bankruptcy and leave behind 125 erstwhile employees, tens of millions of dollars in unpaid bills, and corporate facilities so contaminated with hazmats that the landlord can’t rent the place. Decontamination costs could run as high as $3.7 million.

When state inspectors show up they find 30 55-gallon drums and two larger tanks with a combined capacity of 2,500 gallons full of hazardous materials — the sort of stuff you wouldn’t want to put down an oil well. They also find 2,000 pallets of company-generated hazmats stashed in a Denver warehouse, which subsequently appear to have vanished.

The company’s former director of facilities isn’t returning phone calls from the press these days. Neither is the Delaware-based bankruptcy trustee handling the liquidation.

The good news is that the company was insured. The bad news is the insurance company is refusing to pay for the cleanup. So the landlord, a company named 9586 LLC, a subsidiary of Boulder-based W.W. Reynolds Cos., is suing the insurance company.

The mess is bad enough that it has even attracted the attention of Weld County commissioners.

Commissioner Tim Conway took time out from his busy schedule of trying to secede from Colorado to urge regulators to initiate a cleanup. He also said the county has had trouble finding out whether there are plans to clean the building and when a cleanup might take place.

“We’ve having a hard time getting answers,” he said.

In short, it’s just the sort of story Boulder’s anti-fracking activists would expect to see coming out of the Wattenberg Field — except for one inconvenient detail:

While the company in question lies within the geographical boundaries of the Wattenberg Field, it is not an oil company or an oil field service company.

It’s a solar energy company.

Abound Solar Inc. used to make advanced thin-film cadmium telluride solar cells. It was a darling of the Obama administration and the recipient of a $470 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2010. Fortunately for the taxpayers, Abound had borrowed only about $70 million before it cratered, so the government is expected to lose “only” $40 million to $60 million as a result of the bankruptcy.

Cadmium is both a poison and a carcinogen. The 55-gallon drums and the larger tanks contained cadmium-contaminated water and cadmium-tainted glass and wipes.

The hazmat that apparently went missing from the Denver warehouse consisted of 2,000 pallets of cadmium-telluride solar panels “deemed unsellable.”

Cadmium telluride solar cells are made by applying a micron-thin layer of cadmium and telluride to glass. With Abound’s process, every 30 seconds a 2-foot-by-4-foot glass panel would enter the production line, and two hours later would emerge as part of a solar module — when everything was working properly.

Unfortunately, things didn’t always work properly. According to the Northern Colorado Business Report, which broke the story after an open records act request to the Colorado health department, Abound had “a history of defective products and equipment problems.”

Abound also had a China problem.

Heavily state-subsidized Chinese makers of silicon solar cells ate its lunch, as they did with a number of American solar cell companies.

So how did a company founded by a Colorado State University mechanical engineering professor and two of his former graduate students, who spent 16 years developing their highly automated process for making solar panels, end up leaving behind the sort of mess local activists reflexively blame on oil companies? It’s hard to believe they did it out of reckless disregard for the environment and public health.

Chances are Abound left a mess behind because a company that doesn’t have enough money to keep operating doesn’t have enough money to clean up after itself either. That is true of defunct oil companies and solar cell companies alike.

For that reason, it would be dishonest to unfavorably compare the performance of Abound, which left its mess in place, with the performance of the oil companies operating in Weld County, which have moved swiftly to clean up the 25,000 gallons or so of oil that was spilled out of holding tanks due to the flood. Functioning businesses are capable of cleaning up after accidents; dead ones generally aren’t.

But it is equally dishonest to slime the Weld County gas and oil producers for the spills caused by the flood — as the local anti-fracking NIMBYs were quick to do. The latter worthies saw the spills as a pretext for pushing their campaign for a ban on fracking, which is really a campaign for a ban on further gas and oil production.

The awful truth is that when energy is produced shit sometimes happens — regardless of whether it’s natural gas, oil, or solar-generated electricity that’s being produced. And assuming you want to keep living the Boulder version of the American dream, which notwithstanding local green pieties and conceits is among the more energy intensive on the planet, discontinuing energy production is not an option.