Evaporation ponds grow in number
There are 22 centralized evaporation pond facilities in Colorado, including both those that are company-specific and those that, like Danish Flats, take in wastewater from a variety of companies.
That number continues to rise as old ponds fill up and new wells are drilled.
“The more wells you have, the more produced water you get,” said Scott Pakefield, the enforcement supervisor for the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division’s oil and gas team. “My understanding is we’re getting a couple (applications) every year, though whether we’re getting more this year than last, I don’t think so.”
Still, this adds up to more evaporation facilities dotting the region. And it seems those facilities might be getting larger.
“So far, we haven’t had anything the size of Danish Flats,” noted Tim Andrus, environmental program manager with the Utah Division of Air Quality. But he said they currently have an application for another large facility near Bluebell, Utah, west of Vernal, though it is still in the preliminary stages.
In Colorado, Black Mountain Recycling, an evaporation pond facility outside De Beque formerly called Black Mountain Disposal, was shut down by Mesa County in 2008 after accepting more waste than its permit allowed and not reporting or cleaning a spill. It reopened in 2010 and received approval to expand in December.
The biggest concerns for environmental and public health advocates stem from the lack of reliable data regarding exactly what — and how much — is in and being emitted from evaporation ponds, as has been the major sticking point in the case of Danish Flats.
“It seems like the trend is for more and bigger ponds,” as drilling goes into deeper formations which result in more produced water, said Jeremy Nichols, director of WildEarth Guardians’ climate and energy program, who studied the emissions of evaporation ponds in Garfield County a couple years ago while with Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action.
When it comes to concerns over oil and gas drilling, “this is not necessarily the most pressing issue but it will be at some point,” he said. “It could be that the Piceance Basin and western Colorado are turning into a dumping ground for this drilling waste.”
The smaller pits located at the well sites are typically exempt from regulations, Pakefield said.
For now, it appears the regulations for larger facilities remain ambiguous and many agencies lack the data to know how to strengthen and streamline them.
“From my standpoint, it’s just frustrating that we don’t have more info,” Nichols said.