Colorado flooding has not only overwhelmed roads and homes, but also the oil and gas infrastructure stationed in one of the most densely drilled areas in the U.S. Although oil companies have shut down much of their operations in Weld County due to flooding, nearby locals say an unknown amount of chemicals has leaked out and possibly contaminated waters, mixing fracking fluids and oil along with sewage, gasoline, and agriculture pesticides.
“You have 100, if not thousands, of wells underwater right now and we have no idea what those wells are leaking,” East Boulder County United spokesman Cliff Willmeng said Monday. “It’s very clear they are leaking into the floodwaters though.”
Photographs shared by East Boulder County United, a Colorado environmental group that opposes hydraulic fracturing, show many tanks have been ruptured and others floating in the flood. At least one pipeline has been confirmed broken and leaking.
No one, from oil companies to regulators, seems to know the exact extent of the damage yet as they survey the damage. But Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources Mike King told the Denver Post that, “The scale is unprecedented.” Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Public Health has advised everyone to stay away from the water, as it is possibly contaminated by “raw sewage, as well as potential releases from homes, businesses, and industry.”
Two of the region’s largest oil and gas companies, Encana and Anadarko, said they responded by shutting-in or closing down several hundred of their wells, a precaution until they assess the full damage.
But asked what kind of plan companies have in place to account for the epic flooding seen in Colorado this past week, Encana spokesman Doug Hock told ThinkProgress, “Well, this was a hundred year event so I don’t know if per se we can say we did.” He continued, “But whenever we have an emergency whether there is fire or flood, we always have plans in place and the first line of defense is shutting in the wells … that is the first line of safety precaution and then we will carefully inspect the location.” He described how the company monitored its equipment during the storms using remote sensing equipment.
The problem for equipment even designed to withstand flooding is that water and debris have slammed the above-ground fracking infrastructure, or condensate tanks that hold the chemical-laden wastewater used in the drilling process. “Because the condensate tanks are either halfway empty or halfway full, they’re the pieces of infrastructure that are being torn off their anchors,” Willmeng said. “So you’re seeing these things that are strewn about the flood areas and some are filled up, some are knocked over, and some are completely washed away.”
In addition to the tanks, there are about 3,200 permits for open-air pits in Weld County, although most may not be operating. When “produced water” is held in open pits, as opposed to tanks, they can overflow and cause toxins like lead to contaminate new areas.
“Any flood that breeches a wastewater pit will flush the waste and contaminated sediments into streams and rivers,” Duke University Professor of Environmental Sciences told Fast Company. “Another concern is pipeline ruptures for oil and gas lines.”
Here is an image of a drilling pit in Weld County, from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission:
The entire state of Colorado has 50,000 active oil and gas wells, but fewer than 20 inspectors. An Earthworks report found that state regulators tend to conduct inspections sporadically and inconsistently, with 15 staff having inspected more than 16,000 wells in 2010.