From the pages of
Pinedale Roundup
Volume 104, Number 39 - September 27, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Water issues discussed at two local meetings

by Alecia Warren

Oil and gas operators and state agency representatives left the Pinedale Anticline Working Group (PAWG) Water Resources Task Force meeting on Tuesday satisfied with the group’s decisions.

But later that day local landowners sharply criticized the state’s reactions to water contamination on the anticline at a public information meeting held by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The BLM office conference room filled Tuesday with more than 20 representatives from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Wyoming State Engineers Office, the Sublette County Conservation District (SCCD) and anticline operators, who offered their input to the Water Resources Task Force, a PAWG sub-group that develops monitoring plans and management strategies for water resources on the anticline.

The meeting began with a discussion of surface water studies taken by the SCCD at sampling sites on the New Fork River. After monitoring insect populations and testing water samples for chemicals, the SCCD discovered no water contamination from oil and gas operations at multiple sample sites, said Kathy Raper, surface water quality specialist.

The Task Force then reviewed results from tests over the past year of water wells on the anticline and within one mile of oil and gas development, which operators are required to monitor annually by the 2000 Record of Decision (ROD).

The SCCD tested 10 percent of wells in the region and all wells constructed there this year, as dictated by Task Force procedure. None of the tested residential, stock or irrigation wells showed traces of drilling or fracturing chemicals, like Benzene or Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH). Samples from two industrial site wells, however, measured Benzene amounts at above the DEQ’s normal level, and also revealed amounts of TPH, any trace of which must be reported to the DEQ.

Everyone agreed there was no evidence of what caused the contamination, or that oil and gas operators are necessarily to blame. DEQ Water Quality Division (WQD) spokesperson Mark Thiesse worried that wells not included in the annual check-ups might hold similar contamination, and suggested the Task Force step up testing from 10 to 100 percent of water wells within the one-mile buffer, which would include about 300 wells.

“I very much doubt the chemicals are from oil and gas wells, just based on the (low) concentration of contamination,” Thiesse said. “The concern I’ve got is for residential wells.”

Private landowners with water sources near drilling and fracturing locations might fear similar contamination on their property, Thiesse said. He alluded to a group of residents in the Upper Green River Valley who wrote the Task Force that they had privately funded water testing around their residential areas themselves, concerned that the Task Force wasn’t taking full responsibility for their safety.

“This would at least provide them assurance that we’re looking into it,” Thiesse said. The group passed the motion, with confidence that the Pinedale Anticline Water Quality group would approve the decision at its meeting on Thursday.

The group also heard a presentation from Steven Wright with Geomatrix, a consulting and engineering firm based in California that anticline operators hired to compile the anticline’s hydro-geologic and waste quality trends and to develop a hydro-geologic model of the region.

“The model would look at everything that makes ground water behave the way it does,” Wright said. The firm will study rock type, fracturing in various formations, ground water chemistry and the directions that water is transmitted. From there, the consultants will judge whether operators’ current well-monitoring system is adequate for detecting potential impact from mining activities.

The study comes as a response to DEQ concerns that well monitoring on the anticline doesn’t provide enough data to prove that industry operations aren’t impacting the underlying aquifer, Thiesse said.

Geomatrix expects to present a draft of its findings to operators within the first two weeks of November, and if operators choose to share the information with the public, a meeting to review the results will likely be held in mid-January.

Dennis Doncaster with the U.S. Department of the Interior, who attended the meeting, said he approved of the group’s dealings, particularly the decision to test 100 percent of water wells.

“The system works — we found that something’s wrong, and now we’re dealing with it,” Doncaster said.

But local opinions suggested otherwise at the public information meeting the DEQ and oil and gas commission held that evening to explain the state’s dealings with water contamination issues.

More than 40 people crammed into the commissioners’ meeting room in the Sublette County Courthouse, half of them including the industry and agency members present at the earlier meeting, the other half comprised of locals concerned over land and development issues.

Beginning with a review of recent water contamination, Thiesse said the SCCD discovered four contaminated wells on the anticline in 2006, the result of a lack of back-flow preventers in the wells.

When the WQD requested anticline operators to test all of their wells and determine how many contained back-flow preventers, the data revealed 89 contaminated wells.

Only three showed Benzene levels above normal, while the majority of the others contained very small, harmless concentrations, Thiesse said.

No one knows the cause of the minor but prevalent contamination, and guesses range from wells hitting natural stores of hydrocarbons to leakage from drilling operations.

Openly admitting that operators don’t answer to any agency about construction or operation of their water wells, the DEQ could only respond to the contamination results with a series of ardent suggestions for operators to follow, including constructing wells by DEQ guidelines, installing back-flow preventers (which aren’t required), and periodically locking and inspecting all wells. Finishing his presentation, Thiesse opened the meeting up for questions.

“I find all the information you just presented absolutely terrifying,” one audience member said. “What the problem is here is fragmentation of authority. You’re dependent on operators acting voluntarily and through good will, which is garbage. The first step you need to do is get with state officials, decide who has authority to do what and create a strong protocol for operators to follow.”

Thiesse agreed. “We have no authority to tell (operators) to get out there and investigate those wells and find the source of the contamination,” he said.

After several meetings with the BLM, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Wyoming State of Engineers, Thiese said, the DEQ still has yet to nail down existing authority within any agency to direct operators on contamination concerns. Officially changing agency jurisdictions could take up to eight years, he added.

“It frustrates me, too, I mean what’s going on with those 80-some wells — is the contamination going up or down? I’d sure like to know,” Thiesse said.

Only one operator has presented a proposal in response to the DEQ’s well-maintenance suggestions. Shell offered to pay for additional studies when it constructs a new water well, with the aim to identify where the contamination originates. Investigators will retrieve water samples immediately after Shell drills the well to find if contaminants already exist in the water, and will continue monitoring the water afterward.

Another audience member asked if the DEQ knew whether the anticline operators were drawing enough water from the underlying aquifer to lower the levels in nearby private wells.

Thiesse said he would guess that industry wells wouldn’t create an impact, but he could understand landowners’ concerns, considering there are many industry wells yet to be drilled for many years to come.

“In general, the amount of water (operators draw) is very small in comparison to ranching and the annual input into the aquifer,” Thiesse said. “I have no firm numbers to back that up, but Geomatrix will be working at finding that. We’ll know in six months — which is about four or five years too late, in my opinion, but it’s coming.”

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