Authority over faulty pipeline remains mystery
A state regulator recently acknowledged the lack of clarity over what agency, if any, regulates pipelines like the one that’s the source of a natural gas liquids leak in the Parachute Creek watershed northwest of Parachute.
The comments by Jim Milne, environmental manager for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, came in response to a question by Commissioner DeAnn Craig at the commission’s meeting last week. Milne was providing an update on the investigation into the leak from a pipeline leaving Williams’ gas processing plant.
“I’m just curious who writes the rules for pipeline integrity of this type of system?” Craig asked.
“I don’t have an answer to that,” Milne responded. “I think the agencies have all been looking at that question.”
He said he knows the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has some level of involvement with the plant, but added, “I think the question you ask is a good one.”
He said he and commission Director Matt Lepore have discussed the need to contact any agencies that could be involved and get a better understanding of who has responsibility over the line.
Williams believes a faulty gauge on the pipeline leaked about 10,000 gallons into the soil and groundwater. Carcinogenic benzene has contaminated groundwater and the creek.
Williams has pointed to OSHA regulatory oversight of the pipeline. But OSHA has said it doesn’t regulate things such as what pipeline materials and welding should be used, and that its regulations are geared toward safety considerations such as protecting laborers working in pipeline trenches.
The natural gas liquids pipeline runs from the plant and beneath the creek to tanks on the other side.
Williams says the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration regulates the pipeline running from the tanks to another plant in Rio Blanco County, from which the liquids are then shipped out of state.
That agency covers aspects such as pipeline construction, testing, inspection and maintenance.
The question of jurisdiction over the Williams line takes on additional significance because the company wants to install a second natural gas liquids line in the same corridor going beneath the creek to accommodate an expansion of its plant.
It recently announced a delay in the expansion for reasons it says relate to the local drilling slowdown and not the leak.
That expansion plan went through a Garfield County review process, but a county planning staff report to county commissioners made no apparent mention of the new pipeline.
The oil and gas commission’s ability to regulate the existing or planned pipeline appears to be limited.
It recently handed off lead authority over the leak investigation to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment because it determined it didn’t have primary jurisdiction over the matter.
Oil and Gas Commissioner Rich Alward of Grand Junction told Milne that despite the jurisdictional issues, he’d be interested in any recommendations about what the commission can do “to minimize the risk of this happening again.”
Alward mentioned reporting requirements as one possible area to be addressed.
Williams didn’t initially report the leak because it thought it involved less than 25 gallons, far below the minimum five barrels (210 gallons) that trigger a reporting requirement.
It also didn’t consider the spill to be a threat to surface waters, something that triggers a commission requirement of immediate reporting of a spill of any size.
A bill awaiting action by Gov. John Hickenlooper would require reporting within 24 hours of all waste spills of a barrel or more if they take place outside berms or secondary containment systems. But a barrel, or 42 gallons, is still more than what Williams initially thought had leaked.
In addition, the commission determined the liquids that leaked, as a product leaving a gas plant, don’t involve exploration and production waste, which is why it gave up jurisdictional authority.
Meanwhile, Williams reports that the highest benzene reading in the creek as of Thursday was 4.4 parts per billion.
The level last week remained below the state drinking water standard of 5 ppb in the creek, after barely exceeding that standard the week before, although the standard doesn’t apply to the creek because it’s not considered a drinking water source.
There continue to be no signs of benzene in the creek at the point downstream where the town of Parachute diverts irrigation water.
On Tuesday, a new well was installed to recover contaminants from the soil.
Also completed this week was installation of vertical air sparge wells designed to enhance the removal, through aeration, of benzene in groundwater once they are hooked up to a blower motor.
Those wells are part of a plan, newly approved by the health department and Environmental Protection Agency, under which Williams is upgrading its treatment system at the point where contaminated groundwater is entering the creek.
All containment booms in the creek were replaced Tueday with fresh ones. Work also began last week on sampling contaminated groundwater.
The work is necessary to characterize the contamination before the water can be properly treated and disposed of, the health department said.
Williams said Friday that it so far has recovered about 6,300 gallons of natural gas liquids.
It also plans to construct by month’s end a water treatment system to remove hydrocarbons from the aquifer and from recovered water that then can be returned to the aquifer.
The water will be subject to continuous testing to assure it meets state and EPA requirements before being discharged back to the surface.