Oil and gas drilling will bring jobs and money to El Paso County — and thousands of tons of gunk. A muddy mixture of clay and chemicals, what's left over after a hole is drilled, has to go somewhere. But where, and how?
When El Paso County commissioners adopted local regulations Jan. 31, they retained control of noxious weeds, emergency services, groundwater monitoring and road impacts. But they ceded authority for all other aspects of drilling oversight to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, including disposal of exploratory and production wastes.
"My study of this aspect of the process leads me to [have] confidence in the state and federal regs," Commission Chair Amy Lathen says in an e-mail.
In 2008, Colorado amended its rules to get tough on disposal following at least 11 incidents in Weld County over several years where wastes legally spread on the ground later seeped into neighboring areas. Six impacted surface water, including the Cache la Poudre River. The new rules beefed up surface and groundwater monitoring, imposed new requirements for soil and groundwater cleanup, and altered nearly every aspect of waste disposal in efforts to reduce environmental impacts from drilling.
In the past two years, state regulators have imposed at least $2.3 million in fines in about 15 cases involving the mishandling of wastes used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
"It's important to ensure these cuttings and fluids are properly managed and disposed of," says outgoing COGCC director David Neslin.
Burying the problem
The county adopted rules last month after Houston-based Ultra Resources applied for three well permits in the county, southeast and east of Colorado Springs. Ultra since has applied to the state for two permits on land it owns on the city's east side, and another farther east, near Colorado Highway 94 and Blaney Road.
All applications say the company plans to dispose of drilling wastes in landfills. In its county applications, the company estimates initial test-well drilling for each well will produce up to 10 "loads" of waste over a 10-day period. There's no definition of what constitutes a load.
Three wells lie within a few miles of Waste Connections of Colorado's landfill on Squirrel Creek Road, where mountains of trash are dumped in lined pits that are so vast the company has another 60 years of space left. Though Ultra's applications say the company wants to start drilling in early 2012, it hasn't yet contacted the landfill, says Waste Connections' district manager Ken Manzo.
But Manzo notes that any drilling substances must be tested for chemical composition, which will be documented by his company's engineers before it's accepted. Waste must meet established criteria, he says. If concentrations of certain chemicals exceed specified levels, the waste must be handled as hazardous waste, which costs more.
"We want to make 180 percent sure that it is above and beyond OK to take," he says. "If it doesn't meet the analyticals, they have to come up with a different game plan."
Andrew Casper, regulatory counsel with the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, notes that all disposal methods require state permitting. For their part, state officials say disposing of drilling waste in landfills is sometimes done. In fact, Debbie Baldwin, COGCC environmental manager, says, "Some landfills actually use [drilling] material as cover."
But Bruce Baizel, staff attorney with Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a nonprofit with offices in Durango; Washington, D.C.; California and Montana, says he's unfamiliar with the practice.
"Dealing with it in surface-waste facilities tends to be expensive and leads to contamination of soil and groundwater unless you have a double-lined system with leak detection monitors, and you have to put in monitoring wells," he says, noting that if the waste is considered hazardous, special licensing from the state is required. "Landfills are usually for solid municipal kinds of waste; they're not for oil and gas waste."
He also notes that facilities near rivers and streams could be at risk. And on the COGCC's website, numerous unidentified commenters express concern about the Waste Management landfill on Highway 94 being on a hillside above the east branch of Jimmy Camp Creek, which drains into Fountain Creek.
A Waste Management spokesperson says they have no record of contact from Ultra and would be cautious in accepting drilling wastes.
Leaks and seeps
Of course, there's no guarantee Ultra will stick to its current plan. Under state regulations, the company could store waste in pits or inject it underground, as Ultra has done in Wyoming. Or it could spread mud and fluids over the ground, with the landowner's permission.
Most of the recent fines in Colorado regarding storage dealt with leaking pits or ground spreading.
In April 2010, an Occidental Petroleum Corp. subsidiary got slapped with a $390,000 fine for storing drilling mud and fluids in an unlined pit in Garfield County, on the state's western border, in 2008. The fluids caused two natural springs to test for cancer-causing benzene at levels 200 times higher than the groundwater standard. The company spent $1.5 million mitigating the damage.
In another case, Noble Energy Production was fined $20,000 after it spread drilling mud and liquids that migrated into the Cache la Poudre River in Weld County, though the water didn't test for pollutants above acceptable levels.
But Baldwin, with the COGCC, says mud can cause damage even without chemicals. "If the mud wound up in a river," she says, "it may be harmless from a chemical standpoint, but it would be adding mud and silt to water, and that might not be good for fish. Or it will cover up the vegetation" and kill it.
The state's rules are designed to assure materials are disposed of in ways that "minimize the potential risk to water and water resources," she says.
The most common way to dispose of waste material is by injecting it 12,000 feet into the ground, Neslin says.
He acknowledges that earthquakes began in 1963 in the Denver area after an injection well was drilled at the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal. When injection stopped in 1968, so did the seismic activity, a memo posted on the COGCC's website says.
"This is an issue we're looking at now and coordinating with the Colorado Geological Survey as part of our permitting for underground injection wells," Neslin says. "We want to be sure the new wells being drilled are being sited in areas that will reduce or avoid the risk of any seismic connection."
According to Baldwin, Colorado already is home to more than 800 injection wells.