The Colorado floods that have left eight people dead and hundreds unaccounted for have also submerged parts of the state that are rife with oil and natural gas wells, including the state’s richest oil field. Activists and state regulators are concerned that leakage from the flooded well sites could be adding a variety of dangerous toxins to the floodwater, creating an environmental and human health hazard with implications that are still largely unknown.
"The scale is unprecedented," Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, told the Denver Post. "We will have to deal with environmental contamination from whatever source."
Colorado has more than 50,000 oil and natural gas wells, many of which employ hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique in which millions of gallons of water laced with toxic compounds are blasted into shale rock to extract methane gas trapped within. More than 20,000 of those oil and natural gas wells are located in Weld County, one of the areas most affected by the torrential rains that began last Wednesday, flooding 17 counties and destroying 19,000 homes.
Cliff Willmeng, an anti-fracking activist with the group East Boulder County United, helped touch off a frenzy of social media attention and national concern about the wells when he posted photos to the group’s Facebook page showing some of the Weld County gas wells and accompanying infrastructure underwater. Willmeng tooks the photos on Friday afternoon and says he saw more than 100 wells submerged.
“The aerial shots that are coming in now are showing more obvious signs of contamination,” Willmeng says, referring to photos that show tanks leaking colored fluid into the floodwater.
Todd Walter, a professor of ecohydrology at Cornell University who studies fracking, believes the main source of potential contamination may not be from the wells themselves, since many of them have already been shut off, or even from sealed tanks that have been photographed leaking. Instead, he’s more concerned about the open-air on-site ponds that hold flowback water, which is used in the fracking process and contaminated with toxic chemicals. Unlike the steel containment tanks or the wells, there’s nothing to keep these toxic ponds from overflowing. And although there’s plenty of floodwater to help dilute the chemicals, “The floods may also spread the contamination far into the landscape,” Walter says.
In addition to the fracking hazards, traditional oil and gas wells also present risks. On Saturday a broken oil pipeline was reported to be leaking crude oil, and flood-fueled erosion has left several other buried pipelines exposed. A spokeswoman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group, told CBS: “We have thousands of wells impacted with anything from standing water to flowing water.”
Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth), says that homeowners who live in areas with drilling facilities should be aware that contaminants can build up both in the floodwaters and in the sediments—“goo, muck, whatever you want to call it”—that is left behind when the water recedes, and they should be careful about coming into contact with that sediment until they’re sure it’s safe. She says the ideal situation is for local and state agencies to develop a plan for testing and sampling, but if that doesn’t happen, private companies that are certified to do testing can be hired, as well.
At this point, with many wells still submerged and difficult to reach, both government and industry efforts are focused on assessing the situation before any cleanup can begin. Even after the water recedes, that could be a difficult job.
“Colorado state government by design is not prepared for these issues,” Willmeng says; he points out that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is responsible for monitoring the state’s drilling industry, has only 20 inspectors for 50,000 wells. Willmeng says Colorado residents deserve a quicker account of the flood damage and its potential risks from the drilling companies. “I think the industry has been very slow and their response has lacked detail—that is for sure.”
But it’s tough to hide much of anything in the age of social media. Residents who live near flooded well sites have been uploading photos and contributing to GIS maps of leaking wells. They’ve been so far ahead of reporting by local and national media that some corners of the Internet have spread claims of a “media blackout.”
Michael Kodas, associate director of the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism, says local and national reporters are aware of the flooded oil and gas wells, and a number of stories have already been written about the potential health risks. But there are other priorities right now, too. “More than 1,000 people are still missing,” Kodas, also an OnEarth contributor, points out in an email, adding that helicopters are still evacuating people from the floodwaters. “We're bailing water as fast as we can and typing and taking pictures when we can step back from protecting our own property and helping our neighbors.”
NRDC’s Rotkin-Ellman says the disaster underscores the need for communities to protect themselves from the potential hazards of oil and gas drilling through regulation and public health response plans. “It unearths the hazard of having massive industrial facilities scattered throughout the landscape,” she says. “Without comprehensive regulation of the industry, it just magnifies all these risks.”
Read more OnEarth coverage of the Colorado floods.
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