2013 Flooding on the Front Range

Oil and gas contamination emerging on the Front Range

September 25, 2013
Oil and gas contamination emerging on the Front Range Authorities are just beginning to ascertain the extent of the recent floods' damage to the vast network of oil and natural gas operations on the Front Range. KDNK's Ed Williams flew with Ecoflight over the damaged areas in Weld County, where thousands of oil and gas sites were swamped by the flood water and brings this report.

Related: St. Vrain River now flows through Front Range town of Lyons; Former EPA official sees a lesson in unprecedented floodsDevastated communities struggling with historic floods
  • Listen
  • Download mp3

It's been over a week since the record-shattering rains that decimated much of Colorado's front range stopped falling, and residents and emergency managers are still struggling to ascertain the extent of the flood's destruction.

Today the countryside is a patchwork of standing floodwater, with washed out roads and murky ponds the size of small towns blanketing the landscape. And as the waters subside, a new emergency is taking shape in the country's most heavily drilled county.

Flying over Weld County's flooded gas fields, the view is peppered by partially and fully submerged drill sites. Thousands of gas wells remain underwater, train car-sized storage boxes of fracking fluid are strewn like matchsticks in muddy fields, and dozens of large tanks of crude oil and drilling chemicals that were ripped from their moorings during the deluge now lie on their sides in the mud—some leaking brownish-black liquid into the nearby South Platte River.

As of Tuesday the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, has confirmed 11 "notable" spills that have leaked more than 34,000 gallons of crude oil and other chemicals into the environment. Officials say over the next few weeks they expect to find more.

The COGCC has deployed just over 20 inspectors on the ground to assess the impacted flood areas.

So far inspectors have only been able to survey 40 percent of the flood zone areas for oil and gas damage, and many of the damaged sites they have found are inaccessible because of high water deep mud. Other potentially damaged infrastructure, like pipelines and gas conduits, lay buried underground, also out of the inspectors' reach.

"In some cases thy can't access the wells. So access remains a big challenge," said Todd Harman, spokesman for the COGCC. "What's maybe happening to infrastructure below ground, such as gathering lines and other pipelines, we can't say we have a full handle on."

Given the size of the task at hand, citizens groups--most of them opposed to hydraulic fracturing--are trying to fill the gap for the state, organizing search parties to find and document spills.

Russell Mendell is campaign director for Frack Free Colorado, one of the groups working to find contamination in the flood zone. His team has documented dozens of spills in Weld County and elsewhere. But Mendell says some of the volunteers working on the search effort have gotten sick from exposure to chemicals at the spill sites.

"We had a few people who went up just southeast of Greeley, to see some of the tanks that had been turned over," Mendell said. "Their faces were burning, their eyes were burning, their throats were burning. One of the people who went out, their throat is still burning a couple days afterwards. It's really concerning"

Conservation groups are criticizing the state's current rules allowing oil and gas operators to drill 50-feet from waterways, saying the proximity of many wells to area rivers exacerbated the damage by the flood.

"We obviously have compromised wells and overturned tanks. We've seen sheens on the surface of the water," said Weston Wilson, a former scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency who was out surveying the flood damage last week.

Wilson says while some of the chemicals released in the spills should evaporate into the air, the dense crude oil and other heavy contaminants will likely seep into the groundwater. Residents here, he says, could be discovering contamination under their feet for years to come.

"This is an unprecedented event," Wilson said. "The National Weather Service described this as a flood of biblical proportions, and indeed it is. For example the previous record in Boulder County was six inches of rain in one month, and in this one-week period there's been 18 inches of rain. We never see records obliterated to such extent. There's a lesson here—this is a climate-induced event. We must get off fossil fuels or this will be our future. After all here in Colorado we've had drought, fire, and floods in the same year."

COGCC spokesman Todd Hartman said it's premature to talk about what policy and regulatory changes might come in the future. For now, he said, authorities are focusing on surveying the damage from the flooding. And Hartman said until conditions improve in the Front Range, it's impossible to know how long that task will take to complete.