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October 13, 2009
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Consultant: OXY, Williams at fault for Prather spring contamination in Western Garfield County

The 2008 contamination of two springs in Western Garfield County has been connected with nearby water pits used to hold toxic sludge from gas wells, according to a report filed with a state agency.

The report names two companies, Williams Production and OXY USA, two of the dozen and a half or so gas companies operating in the Piceance Basin area, as probably being responsible for the contamination.

Judy Jordan, Garfield County's liaison with the oil and gas industry, said during a presentation to the Board of County Commissioners on Monday that the Prathers had met with her recently and handed her a report on the contamination.

Jordan then passed the report, dated Sept. 10, 2009, on to the commissioners, along with her assessment of its findings.

"I think we're seeing ... water contamination that's associated with management of the pits," Jordan told the county commissioners.

The report, by Halepaska and Associates of Littleton, names the Williams and OXY gas companies as the "likely" culprits in the Prather spring contamination cases, based on exhaustive studies of the groundwater, soils and drainage patterns of the terrain.

The report recommends regular monitoring of the springs and of the gas drilling operations nearby, as well as examination of the downhill path of least resistance from the pads to determine the extent of possible contamination.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a state agency that oversees drilling permits along with the drilling companies' compliance with safety and environmental regulations, has been studying the case for more than a year.

Prather was sickened on May 30, 2008, when he drank a glass of water from a spring that has supplied water to his hunting and outfitting cabin for years.

Subsequent testing showed that his water was heavily tainted by a chemical brew known as BTEX, containing benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. The mix of chemicals, which characteristically comes to the surface during the drilling process, is a known carcinogen and neuro-toxin.

A Williams spokeswoman, who said she had not seen the report, stressed that the company has been working with state regulators to determine the source of the Prather spring contamination.

"We believe that we're not the source of the contamination up there," said Donna Gray of Williams, adding that the company continues to cooperate with the COGCC on monitoring the situation.

She said she was not aware of any "final determination" of the case, and that as far as she knew, "the investigation is still continuing."

The COGCC office in Denver was closed on Monday for the Columbus Day holiday, and officials of the agency could not be reached for comment.

The consultant's report concludes that a the pollution of two springs, designated the Prather Spring and Spring No. 2 in the report, contained contaminants that mirror chemicals found in pits dug by the drilling companies to hold different types of chemical-laden water produced during the drilling process.

According to a story published in the Oct. 11 Denver Post, there are 18 wells perched within 3,000 feet of Prather's spring, which is located north of I-70 between DeBeque and Parachute.

The story also reported locating an existing pit and one that reportedly was cleaned up soon after Prather became sick, both on hillsides above the cabin.

The consultant's report on the Prather case was cited as part of a larger report delivered by Jordan, in which she detailed a different situation involving pits that were reported to her office by a citizen as being sloppily maintained.

The pits, on the border of Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, was linked to a relatively old drilling operation, Jordan said, and showed traces of some of the same kinds of chemical as were detected in the Prather case, specifically benzene, toluene and other volatile hydrocarbons.

She said the operator of the pits, which she did not name, reacted quickly and effectively to recommendations about how to deal with the sludge present in the pits, which scientists have long suspected of being capable of polluting groundwater sources.

The issues related to possible groundwater pollution by gas drilling operations, in general, has become the focus of widespread scrutiny, from recently introduced federal legislation to a new documentary that chronicles the problems experienced by Garfield County residents living near gas welling rigs.

The legislation, now before both houses of Congress, calls upon gas drilling companies to reveal the exact chemicals used in the drilling process known as "hydraulic fracturing," or "frac'ing."

Frac'ing involves the injection of vast amounts of water, sand and chemicals into well bores to split up tight rock formations deep underground and free up trapped deposits of oil and gas.

Proponents of one law, the FRAC (for Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) Act, say federal oversight is needed so that researchers can know exactly what chemicals to search for as they monitor the operations for possible contamination of groundwater.

The industry has steadfastly held that such oversight should be left to the states, and that sufficient information already is available about the chemicals used in frac'ing.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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The Post Independent Updated Oct 13, 2009 01:06AM Published Oct 13, 2009 01:04AM Copyright 2009 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.