State regulators have fined Caerus Oil and Gas $14,000 for a 2017 spill involving produced water that contaminated surface water northwest of Parachute, while North Fork Valley activists are raising concerns about a Gunnison Energy produced-water spill May 9 near West Muddy Creek in Gunnison County.
The Caerus fine was agreed to between Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff and Caerus to resolve an enforcement action against the company. It was approved by the commission Tuesday.
According to commission documents, the Caerus spill involved a new polyethylene surface pipeline on the Roan Plateau that had been successfully pressure-tested July 3, 2017. About 3 a.m. July 29, 2017, contractors were pumping a mix of fresh water and water produced during oil and gas development and noticed the water had stopped flowing normally. They immediately ceased their pumping to investigate. Caerus later blamed the leak on an inadequate fuse between two pipeline pieces.
Caerus estimated the spill lasted seven to nine minutes, during which an estimated 21,000 gallons entered a dry drainage, with the fluids reaching two ponds.
Soil and surface water sampling showed contamination levels exceeding conservation commission and state Water Quality Control Commission standards.
In answering a violation notice in the case, Caerus pointed to its prompt action to contain the spill, sample soil and water, and take other steps including removing about 87,000 gallons of water from the ponds. Oil and gas commission staff cited such factors in recommending the $14,000 fine amount.
The Gunnison Energy spill happened on private property near Colorado Highway 133 north of Paonia Reservoir. A spill report filed by the company says field personnel began to pump produced water from a well to a water storage pond facility, noticed that pressure seemed low, then discovered the apparent leak site along the pipeline route.
An oil and gas commission inspector found no signs that the spilled fluids reached West Muddy Creek. The creek is 550 feet downhill from the spill location. Gunnison Energy general manager Salar Nabavian said Wednesday that there's currently no indication that the fluids reached any body of water.
He said Gunnison Energy is still evaluating how much was spilled, but it was probably between five and 30 barrels. That's 210 to 1,260 gallons.
He described the fluids as brackish water, probably containing chlorides and dissolved solids. He said it didn't contain oil.
Nabavian said the leak appeared to have occurred as a result of probably about a quarter-inch hole in the pipe. Soil testing is continuing to determine how much land was affected.
In a news release, three groups active in North Fork environmental issues — Citizens for a Healthy Community, the Colorado Farm and Food Alliance and High Country Conservation Advocates — said having another spill in the upper North Fork watershed further highlights the risk of permitting drilling in sensitive water supply areas.
"It appears we dodged a major bullet this time, but this isn't the first mishap and no one expects it to be the last," Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson with Citizens for a Healthy Community said in the release.
He said that as long as federal and state agencies and local counties continue approving more wells in the watershed, "and more and more under-regulated and under-inspected infrastructure along with it, we'll continue to lose sleep at night."
Nabavian said Gunnison Energy had been planning to pressure-test its pipeline system this summer, and the leak occurred before it was able to do so. He said the company will likely now speed up how soon that testing begins.