Garden Gulch spills to have hearing at last

More than three years after the incidents occurred, state oil and gas regulators are scheduling hearings related to major spills of fluids from pits north of Parachute.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is scheduled at its May 16–17 meeting to consider finding Berry Petroleum in violation of 10 rules in connection with the release of more than 100,000 gallons of drilling fluids above Garden Gulch, a tributary of Parachute Creek. Berry Petroleum reported the incident Jan. 21, 2008, but the release is believed to have begun late the previous November.

Rob Willis, enforcement officer for the commission, said he hopes to next bring before the commission the case of Marathon Oil, which spilled an estimated 1.26 million gallons of fluid used in hydraulic fracturing into Garden Gulch that same winter.

“It’s in the queue. I’m still hoping to move that forward in June. That’s my next hot environmental cleanup (disciplinary action),” Willis said.

The two spills created frozen waterfalls in Garden Gulch and prompted concern about their potential for impacts on Parachute Creek, including on ranching operations and fish. In April 2008, officials from the two companies said tests from the spills indicated levels of contaminants such as benzene didn’t exceed standards for drinking water.

Word that a hearing has been scheduled caught Berry Petroleum a bit off-guard.

“We were a little surprised to receive the (hearing) notice after more than three years had lapsed since we last communicated with the commission,” said Davis O’Connor, Berry Petroleum vice president and general counsel.

Oil and gas regulators have gotten behind on enforcement actions partly due to staffing limitations and the agency’s focus in recent years on passing and implementing new rules.

Another reason has been a slew of enforcement matters, including complicated cases such as groundwater contamination northwest of Parachute where identifying the responsible parties is difficult and time-consuming.

Willis said he is working to get caught up on enforcement cases, following direction from the commission and agency director Dave Neslin to “knock these down as quickly as I can.”

Oil and gas regulators haven’t yet proposed a fine amount against Berry Petroleum, and they expect to discuss a possible resolution with the company. Each violation would be punishable by a fine of $1,000 for each day it occurred and a $10,000 maximum that can be exceeded if conditions such as a significant environmental impact can be shown. Willis said he believes Berry Petroleum caused such an impact.

Berry Petroleum disagrees, but it has expressed regret for the incident.

Said O’Connor, “We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously. We’re firmly committed to having our operations in full compliance with applicable law.”

In a separate action in 2009, the state Water Quality Control Division reached agreements with Berry Petroleum, Marathon Oil and Enterprise Products Operating LLC under which they paid a combined $680,000 in penalty settlements after soil from an access road and pipeline project washed into Garden Gulch and Parachute Creek.


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