State rejects waste site for drilling sludge

A state agency has rejected a company’s proposal to inject millions of barrels of waste fluids from oil and gas operations underground southeast of Grand Junction, citing concerns about potential contamination of drinking water wells and the Gunnison River.

After a hearing lasting several hours earlier this week, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted unanimously to uphold its staff’s denial of the permit application of TC Operating, LLC.

The proposal also had raised concerns over the possibility that it might induce earthquakes, affecting the integrity of the U.S. Department of Energy’s uranium mill tailings disposal site some 2.5 miles away.

The company was proposing to inject more than 13 million barrels, or more than 500 million gallons, of produced water, recovered hydraulic fracturing fluids and other liquid wastes over 15 years at a site in the Deer Creek area off U.S. Highway 50 near the Delta County line.

The well was proposed for the same location where Mesa County commissioners in 2010 permitted TC Operating and Goodwin Septic Tank Service to build two evaporation ponds for oil and gas wastewater. Commissioners previously had rejected a proposal for 10 of the ponds there.

The well proposal involved injecting the waste into geological formations less than 2,000 feet deep. Oil and gas commission hearing officer Peter Gowen said most injection wells are thousands of feet deep.

The agency feared the wastewater could travel through underground faults to a shallower geological formation where a few households within a four- or five-mile area of the proposed site currently get their water, and could contaminate water that could be tapped later for future household use.

Also, the state Division of Water Resources had worried the injected wastewater could exert pressure on existing underground aquifers that are high in total dissolved solids, forcing that water to surface where the geological formations containing it outcrop, and contaminating the Gunnison River watershed. Deer Creek is a tributary to the Gunnison.

Gowen said the Department of Energy had voiced concern that it might incur new costs to monitor for potential damage at its disposal site from possible earthquakes. Research has linked injection wells to earthquakes in some parts of the country.

Stephen Sullivan, an attorney representing TC Operating, told the oil and gas commission its staff needed evidence that impacts might occur from the injection well and hadn’t met the burden of proof.

“There has to be a reasonable cause for denial. The application is not required to prove the negative,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said agency officials’ fears were based on mere speculation. He said the proposed injection site is in an isolated area, and TC Operating’s evidence shows the injection zone isn’t hydrologically connected to the drinking water aquifer.

TC had proposed to monitor all water wells within two miles of the site. But oil and gas commission staff worried that it would be difficult to effectively monitor for possible impacts from the injection well.


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