Mountain States

*UPDATE II* Some Much-Needed Context on the Colorado Floods

UPDATE II (9/25/2013; 5:05am MT): The Greeley Tribune of Weld County, Colo. – one of the hardest hit areas in the flood zone, with more oil and gas wells than any other county in the state – published a story overnight citing state health officials, local health officials an expert in civil and environmental engineering from Colorado State University.

The Tribune says Colorado oil and gas regulators are now reporting roughly 35,000 gallons of oil were released due to flood damage, but according to the experts, this amount is “negligible” compared to the sheer volume of floodwater and hundreds of millions of gallons of pollution from overflowing sewer systems and other sources. The Tribune reports:

“While the new estimate of oil released from flood-damaged tanks has grown to almost 35,000 gallons, officials believe it really is just a minute part of a much bigger problem. Floodwaters quickly became a toxic soup of wastewater, raw sewage, industrial and household chemicals, agricultural waste and chemicals rushing downstream. Oil and gas releases, officials said, have been so small, it’s almost immaterial. ‘There were likely hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage and that is the larger public health concern,’ said Mark Salley, spokesman for the state department of Public Health and Environment.”

Meanwhile, Fox 31 Denver provided the following context about those oil releases:

“In total about 34,500 gallons of oil have spilled. Two of the 11 releases are still being assessed.

For comparison, that amount would fill a large 25x45x4 backyard swimming pool.”

Even before these latest stories, the Denver Business Journal noted “the oil spills represent about 4 percent of the 660,000 gallons it takes to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool” and Denver bureau of the Associated Press reported “the state health department says the millions of gallons of sewage dumped into the river from broken sewer pipes and waste treatment plants pose a bigger problem.”

It’s encouraging to see these news outlets treating this story with the seriousness it deserves, by keeping the public updated on the impacts of the floods on oil and gas operations, but also providing the much-needed context to help the public make sense of those impacts. And very clearly, the officials in charge of public safety in the wake of the floods have determined the impacts from damaged oil and gas well sites pale in comparison to the risks posed by huge volumes of sewage and other kinds of runoff in the floodwater.

UPDATE (9/23/2013; 12:02pm MT): The first installment of this blog explained why public safety officials are much more worried about millions and millions of gallons of raw sewage, chemicals from homes and businesses, pesticides, animal waste and other kinds of pollution in the floodwaters of Colorado than they are about several hundred barrels of oil and produced water released from damaged well sites. To illustrate the point, we showed how that amount of oil was hundreds and hundreds times smaller than the amount of overflowing sewage and wastewater from just one of the flood-ravaged cities in just one day.

Since our initial blog post, we have been encouraged to see some news outlets acting on the guidance of public safety officials and other experts. For example, here are some highlights from the Fort Collins Coloradoan’s recent coverage:

“While oil spills grab the most headlines, health experts worry more about the amount of human waste and other common chemicals washed over the state by floodwaters. …

‘It’s important to compare how much oil was released with the water (flow),’ said Steve Gunderson, director of the Water Quality Control Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

When the South Platte River, where most of the oil spills have been reported, flowed past Fort Lupton, it was pushing 67,000 gallons of water per second.

‘20,000 gallons is a drop in a bucket’ in that kind of stream flow, Gunderson said.  …

‘There is without a doubt raw wastewater in the Big Thompson,’ said Ken Carlson, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Colorado State University. As for the [oil released] into the South Platte, Carlson said: ‘I’m not worried about it.’”

So, the reported volumes of oil released are less than one second’s worth of floodwater in a natural disaster that’s lasted more than a week. Perhaps that’s why The Denver Post also cautioned:

“The growing spill volumes still are small by oil and gas industry standards, and they rank low in comparison with other contaminants leaked this past week as debris-filled floodwaters rushed through northern Colorado. Other industrial chemicals and agricultural waste, including runoff from feedlots, seeped into flood torrents — not to mention millions of gallons of municipal sewage from compromised water treatment plants.”

That reminded the team at Energy In Depth of an earlier Denver Post story which said just one of the state’s devastated cities – Boulder, Colo. – was inundated with 4.5 billion gallons of floodwater. To put that in perspective, an Olympic-size swimming pool contains roughly 660,000 gallons of water, so the floodwater from just one impacted city would have filled close to 7,000 Olympic swimming pools. For some further perspective, just one day of overflow from the same city’s wastewater system would fill dozens of pools.

But based on current reports, the amount of oil released during the massive flood would barely fill the first few inches of just one Olympic-size swimming pool.

That explains why Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has been constantly briefed by public safety officials and has personally toured some of the damaged sites said just yesterday: “Given the power of this flood, the fact that there hasn’t been that much leakage, I think, is incredible.” And on the same inspection tour, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Matt Lepore – the state’s top oil and gas regulator – praised the flood protections that prevented further damage at one of the sites: “Everything, all the equipment is in place. I think it’s impressive that it weathered the storm as it did.”

The scale of the flood crisis in Colorado is terrible. The state’s oil and gas industry takes the damage to its facilities very seriously, and the men and women of the industry are working tirelessly to minimize any environmental impacts, while at the same time helping their neighbors through these incredibly tough times.

But based on current information, public safety experts have very clearly determined damaged oil and gas facilities pale in comparison to the threat posed by huge volumes of sewage and other kinds of runoff in the floodwater. In times of natural disaster, we should turn to those officials for reliable information, and avoid the kind of speculation that could actually make it harder for them to keep people safe.

Original Post 9/20/13–

The 500-year flood that continues to devastate parts of Colorado is an immense natural disaster, and has led the President to declare “major disaster” status for our state. Ten people are deceased or missing presumed dead, and the floodwaters have destroyed and damaged homes, businesses, farms, roads, bridges and all kinds of other basic infrastructure. In short, this is an enormous tragedy, and our hearts go out to the families and communities who have suffered so much turmoil and grief.

The flooding also impacted Colorado’s Denver-Julesburg Basin, a major oil and gas field. Despite the fast-moving rains, operators in Colorado put into place their emergency plans and prepared as best as possible for the waters. Almost 2,000 wells were shut-in as a precaution against flood-related damage, and many could be monitored from afar.

As floodwaters begin to recede, industry officials have been working alongside state, federal and local officials to assess their operations, locate any damage and quickly address any environmental interest. The state’s oil and gas regulatory oversight commission, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, noted that state law mandates that operators report spill damage within 24 hours, “but they are moving faster than that with the flood.”

There’s an understandably high level of public concern about the status of these wells, but unfortunately, some of the media coverage of the aftermath of the flooding has been largely driven by speculation.

Yesterday and today, however, regulators have been able to provide some much-needed context. Out of almost 2,000 shut-in wells, five “notable” spills have been identified so far, totaling roughly 500 barrels, or between 20,000 and 25,000 gallons. Another 11 locations have “minor” releases, which the regulators describe as “sheens coming off of a piece of equipment rather than a measurable volume of petroleum product.” To put this into context, the regulators also observed:

“In the context of this historic event, these spills are not an unexpected part of many other sources of contamination associated with the flood. Those include very large volumes (millions of gallons) of raw, municipal sewage and other hazards associated with households, agriculture, business and industry.”

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper elaborated further on the regulatory reports, saying:

“The several small spills we’ve had have been very small relative to the huge flow of water coming through.”

So, what does that mean in practical terms? Well, during the flooding, a 300-foot breach was discovered in a major sewage and wastewater line in the City of Boulder, one of the hardest hit communities by the floods. According to ABC-7 News, the pipeline carried “approximately 90 percent of Boulder’s untreated wastewater” and the breach “was allowing untreated wastewater to discharge directly into Boulder Creek.”

In normal conditions, roughly 12.5 million gallons a day are processed through Boulder’s sewage and wastewater treatment system, and this pipeline carried 90 percent of it. However, during the flooding, much larger volumes of water were rushing into the sewer system – approximately 50 million gallons, according to one estimate. And then there’s the separate problem of the extra volume of stormwater “filling the city’s sewer system and pressurizing the sewage, sending it into homes,” according to the Boulder Daily Camera.

So, in just one community affected by the flooding, well in excess of 10 million gallons of sewage and untreated wastewater was dumped directly into a waterway in a single day. That’s more than 400 times the volume of the oil released by the “notable” spills identified by state regulators thus far, from one city in one day. But according to state health officials, this is just one of many wastewater treatment systems which have been badly damaged or destroyed in several cities and towns across northern Colorado, including Longmont, Loveland, Evans, Estes Park and Sterling.

And according to Mark Salley, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the focus on sewage is a more critical issue that oil and gas spills:

“There have been millions of gallons of raw sewage released to the waters, and that’s a greater focus as far as public health is concerned,” Salley said.

Of course, there is still much evaluation to be done to determine the damage done by this historic flood. As additional information is gathered, we hope to present a clearer picture of any environmental impacts.

But while those impacts are being assessed, the oil and gas industry is not sitting idly by. Employees that are not required in the fields are volunteering their time, equipment and money to help their neighbors and communities help rebuild their lives.

Energy in Depth has heard from Anadarko that their employees have been out in the affected areas delivering water and food, repairing fences, clearing streets, and donating hotel rooms, portable restrooms and gift cards for families displaced from their homes. They have also donated $500,000 total to the Weld County Relief Fund, the Red Cross, the United Way Foothills Flood Relief Fund, and the United Way Larimer County Long-Term Recovery Fund.

We are aware that Noble Energy has donated $500,000 to the Red Cross, and their employees have volunteered hours of their time at the Red Cross food station, and the Weld County food bank. They are also purchasing and delivering critical relief supplies, like water and portable restrooms, to shelters and families in need. And in addition to direct efforts like these, Encana has pledged $250,000 to various charities, including Weld County United Way and Foothills United Way.

And these are just the examples we have heard about in passing as oil and gas employees work tirelessly on recovery and relief efforts.

The men, women and families of Colorado’s oil and gas industry take the tragedy and devastation from the recent floods very seriously. Once the environmental impacts from damaged oil and gas facilities are fully assessed, the industry will take responsibility for them, because we all strive to be good neighbors, and because the law requires it.


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