Oil and Gas Discharge Caused by Colorado’s “Thousand-Year” Flood

 

The fifteen inches or more of precipitation that began falling the second week of September caused massive flooding across the state of Colorado, with some describing the torrential rains as a “one-in-a-thousand-year rainfall event.”

As Colorado floodwaters recede, new health risks have begun to arise, and residents now face a threat of contaminated waters. Gary Wockner, Colorado program director for Clean Water Action, said: “[the biggest] concern is oil and gas and fracking chemicals in the water. . . . Oil, gas, and fracking chemicals are poisonous to people and animals and could pollute farms and drinking water supplies.” The full extent of damage is not yet known, as many areas have not yet been inspected.

Floodwaters caused the release of more than 43,000 gallons of oil and more than 18,000 gallons of produced water. Carl Erickson, a Colorado resident and activist with the local group Weld Air and Water, said that the flooding has served as a “wake-up call” that oil and gas development has its consequences.

Anadarko Petroleum Corporation reported two oil spills – 323 barrels (13,500 gallons) along the St. Vrain River, and 125 barrels (5,250 gallons) into the South Platte River. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) spokesman, Matthew Allen, said that both releases involved condensate, a mixture of oil and water. Anadarko workers attempted to contain the South Platte oil spill by placing absorbent booms in the water, but state officials reported the booms have only collected residual oil. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association (“COGA”) is currently working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the National Response Center, and the EPA to monitor cleanup efforts.

The flooding reportedly affected at least a thousand gas wells. Noble Energy estimates it shut down between five to ten percent of its wells. In addition, a four-inch Anadarko natural gas pipeline began leaking after the ground around it washed away. Anadarko spokesman, John Christiansen, stated that Anadarko promptly shut off the pipeline and contained the leak.

The flood’s impact on Colorado’s oil and gas fields and the resulting threat to health and the environment is of particular concern to Representative Jared Polis, who serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources (the “Committee”). In a joint letter with Representative Peter DeFazio, the Committee’s ranking Democrat, Polis asked the panel’s chairman, Representative Doc Hastings, to hold a hearing in order to “fully understand the [potentially] grave consequences resulting from [the] flood.” In the letter, Polis stressed that a congressional inquiry might help identify “best practices,” which could mitigate future contamination caused by flooding.  Best practices, include prohibitions on open pits of produced water; closed loop systems for recycling produced water; ways of securing holding tanks, which can be swept away by flood waters; and limitations on well drilling in flood plains.

Additional problems could emerge once inspectors examine sites more thoroughly. Currently, the EPA is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”), as well as state and local agencies, to assess the flood’s impact on drinking water and wastewater. Wockner stated, “It’s great news that the EPA is engaging. We have serious concerns that because [Colorado] has so few inspectors and regulators, the [oil and gas] industry is out there self-policing. We need [the] EPA to step in and make sure the public and environment are protected.”

The September 2013 floods have been described as “the worst natural disaster in Colorado so far this century.” Now that the waters have begun to recede, the long process of cleanup and reconstruction can begin. If you would like to help, please visit: www.helpcoloradonow.com.


Sources:

Samantha-Rae Tuthill, Thousands of Gallons of Oil Released into Colorado Floodwaters, AccuWeather, Sept. 20, 2013, http://www.accuweater.com/en/weather-news/water-contamination-boulder-fl/17865986.

Colleen Slevin and Matthew Brown, Colorado Flooding Triggers Oil Spills, Shutdowns, The Boston Globe, Sept. 20, 2013, http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/09/19/colorado-flooding-triggers-oil-spills-shutdowns/2cG8nHJBmyNmjEAApJYh8L/story.html.

Keith Coffman, Likely Death Toll in Colorado Floods Rises to At Least 10, Reuters, Sept. 20, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/20/us-usa-colorado-flooding-idUSBRE98I0YX20130920.

Tom Yulsman, Colorado Floods: Rescue and Recovery from ‘Biblical’ Rainfall, Sept. 20, 2013, http://nation.time.com/2013/09/18/on-the-ground-in-colorado-digging-out-after-the-deluge/.

Tom Kenworth, Full Extent of Oil and Gas Spills From Colorado Floods Remains Unknown, Oct. 7, 2013, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/10/07/2738341/oil-spills-colorado-floods/.

Editorial, As Colorado Floods Recede, A Will to Rebuild, The Denver Post, Oct. 7, 2013, http://www.denverpost.com/editorials/ci_24107674/colorado-floods-recede-will-rebuild