Energy companies cited in Parachute leak case

State regulators took formal enforcement actions against two energy companies Wednesday as efforts continued to try to determine the source of a liquid hydrocarbon discovered near Parachute Creek about four miles northwest of Parachute.

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff issued notices of alleged violation against Williams and WPX Energy in connection with a subsurface leak that has produced about 6,000 gallons of a liquid believed to be a byproduct of natural gas development.

Spokespersons Todd Hartman of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Michele Swaner of Williams both said only another one or two more barrels (42 to 84 gallons) of the liquid had been recovered since Tuesday. The amounts recovered have fallen off sharply in the last few days, suggesting the flow from the unidentified source may be diminishing.

However, substantial amounts of contaminated groundwater continue to be removed. More than 102,000 gallons have now been recovered, including more than 16,000 gallons on Wednesday.

There continues to be no evidence of contamination of the creek, and measures including digging interceptor trenches have been taken to try to protect it. The notices issued Wednesday also require the companies to “identify and evaluate all potential receptors of both surface and ground water within a one-mile radius of the interceptor trenches.” Groundwater is only about 10 feet below ground level in part of the contamination area, which is itself up to 14 feet deep.

The citations issued Wednesday could lead to potential fines in connection with the incident. However, the COGCC sometimes issues them to all potentially responsible parties in cases when contamination from an unknown source has occurred, in order to ensure their involvement in helping to determine the source and assisting in remediation and protective measures while the investigation continues.

Williams first discovered soil contamination March 8 in a pipeline corridor adjacent to its gas plant, which is on land owned by WPX Energy. It was doing pipeline location work in preparation for building a new plant on the WPX land. The land belonged to Williams until about a year ago, when it spun off its oil and gas exploration and production operations to focus on operating gas plants and pipelines, and WPX was created as an independent company.

Part of the ongoing investigation has involved a slow-going process of clearing around pipelines belonging to both companies in the right of way to check for leaks. Pressure tests by the companies haven’t indicated that any pipeline leaks are occurring.

There also are tanks and other infrastructure in the area, including well pads owned by WPX.

In a March 11 email to a COGCC staff member, Williams environmental specialist Annette Garrigues said, “We do not believe the substance is coming from our facility. WPX and Williams both agree that we do not know where it is coming from. The issue is who takes responsibility for the delineation effort and cost.”

That delineation has involved digging to determine the extent of the contaminated area.

In emails to the COGCC, Garrigues also noted WPX also had recently put in a line to carry produced water from gas development, and wondered whether there had been any “historical release” of fluid from a nearby WPX pad.

Swaner would not comment Wednesday beyond the brief update she emailed on the status of the investigation and cleanup.

WPX spokeswoman Susan Alvillar said her company has inspected several of its nearby well pads several times, examined tanks and sampled condensate and produced water. Those samples are now being analyzed, she said.

The company has found no problems involving the infrastructure or wells themselves, she said. And the substance that has been leaking doesn’t bear any resemblance to produced water, she said.

But the company continues to do its part to help with the investigation, she said. As for the question of taking responsibility for costs, “I can tell you we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on this on our own. We’ve been cooperating,” she said.

“I think until the source is identified, we’ll definitely do our part.”

Meanwhile, former Garfield County Commissioner and state oil and gas Commissioner Tresi Houpt said Wednesday the situation suggests that perhaps better testing criteria are needed in the state commission’s pipeline rules.

“There’s absolutely something missing when you read in the paper that it’s going to take weeks to figure out where this (leak) is,” she said.

Various pipeline regulations apply to oil and gas infrastructure, at federal, state and sometimes county levels, depending on things such as whether they are gathering lines from wells or interstate lines.

Said Houpt, “As the pipelines age I think it’s going to be really important that we pay more attention to the condition of the pipelines and really ... do more comprehensive mapping of where all the pipelines are because there are thousands of them” in Colorado.

Garfield County has some 10,000 active wells, and Houpt said pipelines are associated with most of them.


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