Parachute Creek is now officially contaminated with cancer-causing benzene and heaven knows what else. A carcinogenic stew is now making its way quickly down the creek and presumably into the Colorado River a mere four miles away from the source of the contamination, a natural gas plant run by Williams, the international oil and gas company headquartered in Tulsa, Okla.
I’m outraged by what has happened, and everybody in this state should be as well. It didn’t have to happen. We could have stopped it. We just chose not to. State authorities, along with the company, have been watching this slow-motion catastrophe unfold for months, all the while taking one half-measure after another, supposedly in an effort to stop the benzene from reaching the creek. One can only assume that our state’s gas-friendly regulators have allowed Williams to use a half-assed approach full of half-measures because it was half as expensive as doing the right thing from the get-go.
This is, of course, just the latest example of why it is insane to have one government agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), charged with acting as both the oil and gas industry’s primary promoter as well as its supposed chief regulator. You’d have to be dumb enough to drink fracking fluid to think that such a conflicting arrangement could work with any efficiency when it comes to public safety and protecting the environment. Right, governor?
So how did the catastrophe at Parachute Creek occur, and how bad is it? It’s still hard to say exactly, because the story keeps changing, either because the parties involved are telling bald-faced lies or they are the most incompetent group of people to ever walk upright.
Even now, after the contamination in the slow-moving groundwater plume under Williams’ gas plant has been allowed to make its way all the way to the creek, the company and the state still aren’t being forthcoming about what exactly is in the water besides benzene. When it comes to hydrocarbon contamination, if there is benzene in groundwater, then there are almost certainly several other equally or even more dangerous contaminants along with it. But at this point, it’s unclear if the Williams contamination has even been tested for all of the potential contaminants it contains. I have to say, such secrecy is incredibly irresponsible, considering that Parachute Creek water is supposed to be used as part of the town of Parachute’s drinking-water supply. I guess the COGCC is wearing its promoter hat when it comes to making Williams tell us exactly what it has spilled into our water. Lord knows, we wouldn’t want the company to have to go to any additional expense.
And it’s not just the Parachute water supply that’s being affected. Cattle and horse operations downstream are using the water for their animals, and several farmers depend on the creek’s water for irrigation.
This is a big deal. I recently spent a few days with a fellow down by Walsenburg who had the misfortune of irrigating his crops with water contaminated by a gas company six years ago.
The land he irrigated is still dead and won’t even grow grass. As a result, he is on the verge of losing his fourth-generation farm and dairy.
Not mad yet? Let’s take a look at the timetable on this calamity and see if that pushes you over the edge.
On March 8 of this year, Williams called the COGCC and reported verbally that it had found some contaminated soil.
On March 15, Williams told the COGCC that it had found contaminated groundwater. Oil and gas companies are required to file a written report on a spill with the COGCC within a few days of any incident. The exception is very small spills.
On March 18, The Denver Post reported that Williams had dug a trench about 60 feet above Parachute Creek and was pumping out tens of thousands of gallons of contaminated groundwater. The company claimed that the creek was not in danger because its consultants said the creek charged the groundwater, as opposed to the groundwater moving into the creek. The COGCC also said this was the case.
Despite the claim that the groundwater was moving away from the creek instead of toward it, the company dug a new trench even closer to the creek and started pumping out contaminated water from that ditch as well.
In a story on March 28, The Denver Post reported that groundwater monitoring wells just 30 feet from the creek were detecting benzene at 3,600 times the safe level for drinking water.
Despite the claim that the groundwater was not moving toward the creek, a claim that the COGCC was still parroting as late as April 3, Williams then reportedly started drilling more monitoring wells just 10 feet from the creek.
So here’s the picture. Williams and the COGCC keep saying that the creek isn’t in danger because the groundwater moves away from, not towards the creek. All the while, the company keeps finding contaminated groundwater getting closer and closer to the creek — 60 feet, then 30 feet, then 10 feet.
Then, on April 10, Williams announces for the first time that it has determined the source of the contamination. On that day, The Denver Post reported, “A failed pressure gauge led to a leak that spilled 10,122 gallons of natural gas liquids from a valve, starting on Dec. 20, Williams spokesman Tom Droege said. Crews have cleaned up 5,964 gallons so far, Droege said. The leak was discovered and stopped on Jan. 3, he said.”
What? Suddenly, out of the blue, after claiming for months that it had no idea where the contamination was coming from, Williams figures out that it was a 10,122-gallon spill from a leak that began nearly five months earlier, in 2012, a leak that had been discovered and stopped on Jan. 3, more than two months before Williams reported finding contaminated soil to the COGCC? And if there was such a massive spill in December, why hadn’t Williams reported that spill in writing to the COGCC?
Wait for it … Williams says that at the time, it believed that the spill was only 42 gallons, and therefore so small it didn’t have to tell anyone.
That’s right, the company claims it did nothing wrong because it couldn’t tell the difference between a 10,000-gallon spill and a 42-gallon spill. In a painful irony, it was on Earth Day, April 22, that aerators were put in place along Parachute Creek to try to remove the benzene that had finally made its way into the creek downstream from the Williams spill. Nearly five months after the valve started leaking, and four months after the leak was stopped, and two months after contamination was reported to the COGCC, and weeks after one ditch and monitoring well after another kept getting closer and closer to the creek, and after months of assurances that the creek was not in danger and that the groundwater was miraculously moving away from the creek rather than towards it, the contamination finally flowed into Parachute Creek, a tributary of our Colorado River.
There was plenty of lead time on this spill for a groundwater recovery system to have been put into place along Parachute Creek. Such systems suck up and clean the groundwater before allowing it to enter surface water. It’s a common system that is being used in many contaminated locations, including the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and the old Beech Aircraft facility just north of Boulder. But it’s not a half-measure, it’s not as cheap as what Williams was allowed to get away with, with the blessing of the COGCC.
As of today, Williams and the COGCC are still not making the list of chemicals in the contaminated plume, other than benzene, available to the public. As a result, Parachute Creek and the Colorado River can’t even be tested for what has been released.
This is the sad truth of what Gov. John Hickenlooper calls the state with the toughest oil and gas regulations in the nation.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.