Odor lingers over Deer Creek wastewater pond

Thomas Panter walks on his land near his house, about a half-mile from the Deer Creek Disposal Facility in the background.  Alanco Energy, which owns the facility, temporarily hired Boulder-based Clean Chemistry to help with the pond’s rank smell. While Clean Chemistry’s oxidant treatment made a noticeable improvement, Alanco ultimately passed on a maintenance proposal that would continue the treatment indefinitely.

A sign on a perimeter fence marks the Deer Creek wastewater disposal facility near Whitewater.

Operators of the Deer Creek wastewater disposal facility in Whitewater hope by fall to rid their disposal ponds of both the rank smell caused by bacterial activity in the ponds and the swimming pool-like odor that comes from using copious amounts of bleach to kill the offending bacteria.

“We’re certain we will be successful given some time,” said Willie Swanda, operations manager for Alanco Energy Services, which owns Deer Creek, 5180 U.S. Highway 50.

Deer Creek has brought in numerous companies this summer to work on the smell issues, including Boulder-based Clean Chemistry. Clean Chemistry Chief Executive Officer Damon Waters contacted Alanco after a chance meeting of West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association Executive Director David Ludlam at the Global Petroleum Show June 7-9 in Calgary. Ludlam overheard Waters talking about his treatment system and asked him to give Alanco a call. He did, and Clean Chemistry began three weeks of treatment at Deer Creek the week after the petroleum show.

“It was one of those serendipitous things that brought a clean tech company to the Grand Valley to try to help,” Ludlam said.

Waters said the odorless, trademarked liquid oxidant his company used to treat Deer Creek’s ponds, called PeroxyMax, quelled the bacterial stench. But Alanco passed on a maintenance proposal that would continue treatments with the oxidant. Swanda said Clean Chemistry’s work provided pertinent information on pond treatment for his company and the energy industry at-large, but the oxidant treatment wasn’t something Alanco wanted to continue using indefinitely.

“I’ve said from the beginning our model is to not be chemistry-dependent. We want to control the issues biologically,” Swanda said.

Waters, though, said Alanco officials told him “essentially they can’t afford us.”

“With the economics of an evaporation pond, they don’t have enough revenue to support an ongoing chemical treatment program with us or anyone else,” Waters said.

The maintenance price tag was expensive, Swanda said, but he contends it wasn’t the dominant reason for the choice to go a different direction.

“Once they had determined what all their mix was going to entail, it was expensive, especially for a new product. That’s aside from the fact. Regardless of them achieving the ultimate goal or not, we were going to be moving away from chemicals” for ongoing treatment and attempt to have the ponds cleaned and moved toward a regiment of self-regulation, Swanda said.

Swanda said Alanco has hired a bioremediation company to dredge a thick layer of sediment on the floor of the ponds. That sediment can harbor bacteria that are trying to escape from bleach-based treatments, according to Mesa County planner Randy Price, but those bacteria periodically bubble up to the surface after bleach treatments, beginning again the stench cycle that starts with bacteria-caused odor and the pungent chlorine used to treat it.

Price has worked closely with the Deer Creek situation since odor complaints from neighbors to the facility began rolling in last year. He said odor complaints have let up since late May, including during the time Clean Chemistry treated the ponds. But he also hopes Alanco can stick to its goal of finding a chemical-free way to control the biology of the ponds, which he said may be more affordable for Deer Creek.

“These (chemical treatment) companies come in and they underestimate how much chemicals they need to treat the ponds; I think that’s what happened here,” Price said. “Hopefully (Alanco) can come up with a way that’s sustainable to treat the ponds, not adding chlorine all the time.”

The county received its first formal complaint about Deer Creek on May 14, 2014. In May 2015, Mesa County Planning Director Linda Dannenberger sent a letter to Alanco telling the operators their conditional-use permit for Deer Creek could be revoked or altered by the Mesa County commissioners if odor complaints persisted. The letter did not contain a deadline for Alanco to mitigate odors.

Price said Monday the county has no formal deadline for Alanco to make changes in order to avoid a conditional-use permit review. He said the county still gets one or two complaints a week about odors in Whitewater, but some of the complaints may refer to ammonia in Kannah Creek or sewage odors coming from the Goodwin facility next door to Deer Creek.

Neighbors have expressed concern that the smell is not only unpleasant but possibly detrimental to their health. The Mesa County Health Department gave canisters that test for volatile organic compounds to two neighbors to the facility. The canisters were activated on May 20 and June 2 and analyzed by Eastern Research Group, Inc., who found levels of benzene and toluene above levels found in the air at Rocky Mountain National Park and below levels found in major U.S. cities. Benzene and toluene are carcinogens.

One of the neighbors who used the canisters, Thomas Panter, lives about a half-mile from Deer Creek in a yurt off U.S. Highway 50. Panter said there were several days in late June, during Clean Chemistry’s time at the facility, when he didn’t smell anything coming from the Deer Creek site. However, smells returned early last week, waking him up in the middle of the night. It started with the bleach treatment smell but “a couple days it almost smelled like the original problem from a year ago,” Panter said.

Some neighbors have packed up and literally moved on. Others haunt Mesa County commissioners’ meetings, providing steady updates to let commissioners know the problem is not fixed. Panter said it’s “way past frustrating” to deal with the on-again, off-again odors coming from the facility. But he’s not going anywhere.

“I think it’s going to be a long haul before something definitive gets done” about the odors, Panter said. “I don’t have a choice to move, so I’m in it for the long haul, too.”


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