Utah pit out of compliance
Waste pond an ongoing hassle for regulators
Within 30 minutes on a recent late afternoon, three white tanker trucks rolled off Interstate 70 and up the unpaved road. Their destination: 14 ponds carved out of the desert between the highway and the Bookcliffs, north of the Cisco exit.
This facility, Danish Flats, takes in the produced water—a salty mixture of the water, chemicals and hydrocarbons used or brought to the surface in oil and gas drilling operations—from both Utah and Colorado production wells.
Since its inception in 2008, Danish Flats has also been the site of a years-long regulatory headache for the state of Utah and Grand County. Regulators are hopeful that process will conclude by the end of this summer, but the drawn-out process sheds light on the often overlooked problem of what to do with the toxic wastewater produced by oil and gas drilling.
That question has become increasingly pertinent over the past several years as companies have drilled more and deeper in northwest Colorado and eastern Utah. That wastewater may be disposed of in pits at the well sites, injected back into wells, allowed to run off into surface water or taken to large company-owned disposal sites, but centralized commercial evaporation pond facilities such as Danish Flats are gaining an increasingly important role.
Regulators are trying to catch up.
Meanwhile, a proposed expansion of the Danish Flats facility was stopped last year by Grand County until the completion of the regulatory process. Company and county representatives will make presentations and answer questions from the public about the facility at a county council meeting in Moab tonight.
The fluids trucked to Danish Flats bake in the desert sun as evaporation gradually separates the most toxic compounds from the more benign, which are sometimes spewed into the air to speed evaporation.
Situated far from any towns or creeks, the compounds that drift away from the facility on the breeze are dispersed into concentrations generally considered harmless, according to regulators and scientists.
But there is still—and has been for the past four years—concern over the exceptional size of the 14-pond facility and, thus, the larger-than-usual concentrations of hazardous compounds deposited there.
“The size is throwing us a curveball,” explained Tim Andrus, environmental program manager with the Utah Division of Air Quality, who has worked with Danish Flats over the past several years to help them get into compliance with regulations.
He said the facility is the largest in the state. Most evaporation facilities have one or two ponds.
“This is a unique situation in that it’s such a big evaporation pond facility with a lot of emissions,” he said, calling the situation a “learning process.”
QUESTIONS ABOUT EMISSIONS
Evaporation facilities in Utah are required to submit a notice that they intend to emit only minimal amounts of regulated compounds or a notice of intent to emit larger quantities.
In 2008, when operating just eight ponds, Danish Flats filed the paperwork for the former, due to the very small concentrations of toxic compounds they thought they were emitting. Based on the data available at the time, the Division of Air Quality agreed.
By October 2009, however, questions were being raised about the methods used to obtain that data and whether the emissions were actually as low as the data suggested.
The original data was based on “grab samples,” said Andrus, or samples of vapors collected over various parts of the ponds. Since there are parts of the pond that cannot be reached through this method and since wind will blow vapors in different directions, regulators have called into question the accuracy of this method.
Lee Shenton, who said he gets out to Danish Flats at least once a month as technical inspector for Grand County, said this process is “known to understate emissions.”
In March 2010, the Division of Air Quality began to work with Danish Flats to get more accurate studies of the facility’s emissions.
The method used over the next couple years involved measuring the produced water as it goes into the ponds, with the assumption that everything in the water would go into the air, Andrus explained.
This method produces larger numbers but is “better grounded in science,” he said, noting that while it is possible compounds could be degraded in the water before evaporating, studies have so far shown this effect to be minimal.
The Division of Air Quality did not specify a time frame for submitting the new notice of intent, and by February 2011, frustrations began to boil over. On Feb. 14, Danish Flats CEO Jim Bradish questioned in an email why he had received “threatening letters” from the agency after years of “total cooperation, total understanding.”
“...We are no closer to resolving the issue now than we were a year ago,” Andrus wrote in response. “The Division has an obligation to investigate and address sources of air pollution ... I and my staff would prefer to address our concerns in a less formal manner, but the last year of experience with that approach has not proven successful.”
OPERATING WITHOUT A PERMIT
This past March, the company completed the new studies and filed for the permit regulators said they should have filed for four years previous.
“Normally, we like to move much faster than this. It’s unusual for us,” Andrus said.
The new data showed the facility is a major source of so-called volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants, particularly methanol, which has proven particularly difficult to extract and dispose of.
The permit has still not been approved by the state and will likely not be until the company finds a satisfactory way to mitigate that methanol, Shenton said. He called the March filing “knowingly incomplete. Both sides know it was incomplete,” but the agency wanted to at least see how the facility would deal with the other pollutants.
“(Danish Flats) didn’t do anything illegal, but they pushed the system to the limit, if you know what I mean,” Shenton said.
Last year, while still out of compliance with state and federal regulations, Danish Flats proposed expanding the facility to 20 ponds. Grand County stopped that expansion until the regulatory process was completed, citing the county’s authority to issue conditional use permits for businesses operating in areas where that type of business has not been previously permitted.
At this point, the possible outcomes Shenton sees are that the Division of Air Quality eventually decides that they have given Danish Flats too much time to come into compliance and shut it down or that they give them a certain number of months to come into full compliance before shutting them down.
But Shenton presumes the state would not shut them down until a system to try to control the methanol emissions is installed, and while it remains to be seen whether Grand County would decide to shut them down he doubts the county would be able to decide within a month.
Typically, his agency does not pursue shutting down a facility unless there is an imminent hazard, Andrus said. “We can understand how (the emissions data) could get away from them at the time. We’re doing our best to work with them but can only wait so long.”
Meanwhile, he said, “they are operating without a permit right now,” and while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could step in, he said there has been no indication of that so far.
If technologies to control the methanol emissions can be in place within a month, Andrus expects they could get a finalized permit by the end of the summer.
Reached by phone at his Colorado Springs office, Danish Flats’ Bradish declined to comment for this story, saying he did not want to “endorse” it. He said the company “will provide a finite and complete story for you to use” at tonight’s council meeting.
NO IMMEDIATE HAZARD
Danish Flats really is flat. And aside from the prairie dogs and birds, the landscape feels empty.
It appears as a few small, distant towers from the freeway, but up close a dozen azure ponds seem out of place in the sagebrush plain. Clouds of dust billow behind the white trucks as they head to the middle of nowhere.
Shenton walks the berms between the ponds regularly, inspecting the facility for Grand County. He said he uses no special precautions to protect himself from the compounds evaporating off the fluids.
“It’s honestly not particularly hazardous,” he said.
None of the hazardous air pollutants from the ponds are the type that would accumulate in human bodies, he explained. Rather, the Danish Flats pollutants break down in the atmosphere and would biodegrade if they did get into humans.
The seemingly random location of the facility is also important. “Certainly, if you get close enough the (pollutants) at Danish Flats could be harmful, but the facility was intentionally sited far from populated areas,” Shenton said. He also noted that it lies above over a thousand feet of Mancos shale, which is known to be self-sealing when it gets wet, and that no regular creeks run through the area, though it is possible there may be some short-lived washes after heavy rains.
He also checks the leak detection equipment regularly, most recently on May 23rd.
Though some residents have expressed concern wind could blow the pond’s emission all the way to Grand Junction, he doubts “very much anything from the facility could even be detected in Grand Junction. Maybe in Rabbit Valley, but I doubt they could really be detected more than a mile away.”
“I don’t want to diminish the underlying message, though,” Shenton added. “It is important that emissions be properly controlled.”
In the case of Danish Flats, one of the primary components of those emissions is methanol, an alcohol used as an antifreeze to keep drilling operations functioning throughout the winter. Methanol accounts for more than half of the hazardous pollutants emitted by the facility, according to data in the report it filed in March.
Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, is toxic to humans if one were to drink enough, but, in Shenton’s words, it would “take a whole lot.”
“In the world of solvents, it is far from most toxic. Let’s say middle of the road in toxicity,” he said. “I wouldn’t want the public to think they could walk into their backyard and keel over.”
He says the amount emitted by the Danish Flats ponds is far thousands of times below Clean Air Act limits on methanol exposure.
“Still, we should definitely be concerned when (hazardous air pollutants) and (volatile organic compounds) are getting into the environment. That’s why we have the Division of Air Quality and the EPA — to enforce those regulations.” he said.
Water and methanol evaporate at about the same point, making it difficult to capture the pollutant. Though other facilities have been able to use bacteria to biodegrade the alcohol or other methods, such as a complicated distillation process, Danish Flats’ predicament thus far has been the concentration of the methanol in its ponds. Previous attempts at biodegradation there have not worked.
Andrus said a more complicated distillation process might work, but that it would probably be above the cost Danish Flats can bear. “There are times when a source can’t control the emissions due to the cost. That might be the case here,” he said.
On public health hazards, he said they are “getting a handle on the specific (methanol) concentration. Until we know that, it would be hard to know the exact hazards.”
This article is part of a grant-funded project in cooperation with Colorado Mesa University to report on issues of environmental concern.