Notification questions raised as leak probe continues
An investigation continues into the cause of a hydrocarbon leak that has surpassed 5,800 gallons in size, even as concerns are being raised about delays in the town of Parachute and the public being made aware of it.
Todd Hartman, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said Tuesday said another 10 barrels, or 420 gallons, of an unidentified liquid apparently associated with natural gas development were pulled from a pipeline right of way near Parachute Creek, about four miles northwest of town, since Monday morning. About 86,500 gallons of contaminated groundwater have been removed, up from about 60,000 as of Monday morning. There’s been no indication of impact to the creek, Hartman said.
Williams, which along with WPX Energy owns pipelines in the right of way, is investigating several lines as potential sources.
“It is important to recognize that operators are proceeding cautiously as pipeline environments must always be treated with deliberate and considered actions,” Hartman said.
Bob Knight, administrator for the town of Parachute, said he and other town officials visited the site Tuesday morning and were reassured by what they saw.
“I’m comfortable that everything’s been contained; nothing’s going to get into Parachute Creek,” he said.
But he isn’t happy that Williams first discovered contamination March 8 and didn’t notify the town until last Wednesday, five days later.
After an incident came to light in 2008 involving contamination of Garden Gulch in the Parachute Creek watershed by the oil and gas industry, Knight said, protocols were put in place to assure immediate notification of the town in the case of future incidents threatening the creek, which the town uses for irrigation.
Knight said Williams failed to follow that protocol in this month’s situation.
“I just think we were left out of the loop and I find that displeasing,” he said.
Rick Bumgardner, whose cattle run on leased land and drink from the creek downstream of the contamination site, said he didn’t learn of the situation until being told by another rancher Monday.
He said he’s never contacted in such cases, but “they’re my cattle that are going to drink the polluted water when it happens … if it happens.”
Chris Arend, with the group Conservation Colorado, said incidents such as the Parachute one are good examples of how there needs to be greater transparency involving the industry. He said it’s important in the case of major releases for the public to be informed in a timely manner.
“This is a major spill and we’re just finding out about it now. That’s not good for Colorado’s public health,” he said Monday.
Howard Orona, who lives on Parachute Creek and is a citizens representative on Garfield County’s Energy Advisory Board, said whether information was made public soon enough is questionable, and getting it out early helps prevent rampant speculation.
The problem was first discovered when Williams was locating pipelines in an existing pipeline right of way adjacent to a gas plant it owns on land belonging to WPX Energy. Williams is preparing to add a new plant there.
“Companies do what is called self-reporting, which is certainly what we did March 8,” said Williams spokeswoman Michele Swaner.
Both the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the federal Environmental Protection Agency received immediate notification.
Hartman said he believes the initial discovery was limited to soil contamination. Williams provided further notification Wednesday upon discovering the liquids, he said. WPX provided notification Friday when more liquids were found during trenching work to address the contamination.
Hartman said it was probably about 4 p.m. Friday that the executive director’s office of the Department of Natural Resources came to understand a significant volume of liquid was involved.
DNR director Mike King said in a statement Tuesday, “When we learned about this Friday our thoughts and energy were focused on ensuring protection of the environment, and making sure the right things were happening on the ground and with notification of local leadership. In retrospect, we recognize the concerns, and we’re evaluating how we can better communicate in these situations going forward.”
Hartman said that on Friday, “We did not see an imminent threat to health and safety and thought it better to get more information and better understand the situation before issuing some kind of announcement that would have said very little at that stage.”
Saturday, the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association worked with companies to issue a news release, as news of the incident began to break in the media.
At that point, said Hartman, “I determined it was best for me to gather information from our field people … so I could provide COGCC’s information and perspective to reporters who were working the story.”
He added, “These things unfold quickly and you have to make rapid decisions with incomplete information. Should the same thing happen again, I might do it differently, but that’s how it played out this time.”
Swaner said Tuesday that she couldn’t speak to the issue of communication protocols with Parachute and future notification, but added, “Obviously we are talking to agencies and to Parachute, of course, and will continue to do so.”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also has been involved in the investigation, but more in support of the oil and gas commission’s lead role. Department spokesman Mark Salley said the department receives hundreds of spill reports each year, involving oil and gas and other circumstances, “and we certainly don’t make announcements about all of those.”
“We do announcements when there are public health reasons to make announcements and in this case we’re neither the lead agency nor has any general risk to public health been indicated,” he said.
Steve Gunderson, director of the state Water Quality Control Division, said that based on its volume, the Parachute leak is “a significant release,” and an impact of the creek remains “a real possibility.”
He said the agency’s enforcement officials will consider whether additional actions are necessary, but it may defer to the oil and gas commission, per an agreement between the agencies.
Oil and gas regulators issued cease-and-desist orders against Williams and WPX to ensure measures are taken to protect the creek and surface. Hartman said the agency also is planning to issue a notice of alleged violation.
EPA spokesman Matthew Allen said that agency also is working on issuing an enforcement order outlining steps it wants taken to protect the creek.
On Tuesday the Colorado Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife Federation said the incident shows the need for the oil and gas commission to finish something it postponed action on during a regulatory overhaul five years ago — establishing safe operational setbacks from waterways. They said better water monitoring also might have led to the contamination being detected earlier.