RIFLE, Colorado - Area residents made it clear on Thursday that they are worried about the toxic possibilities associated with a large plume of hydrocarbons near an oil and gas production plant up Parachute Creek.
Representatives of the local gas drilling industry, as well as the industry's state overseers and Garfield County's oil and gas liaison officer, spent nearly two and a half hours Thursday evening assuring residents that the companies involved are doing all they can to keep the hydrocarbons from getting into Parachute Creek or causing other problems.
Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, admitted that the suspected leak, which has yet to be found, might be significantly older than had been assumed.
"Was it a very slow, slow leak over a long period of time?" asked Lepore, speaking at the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board meeting at the Rifle branch library. "I don't know."
Dave Keylor, vice president of Piceance Basin operations for Williams Midstream, admitted that the company on Jan. 30 had discovered a leaking gauge in the same area as a valve set that is suspected as a source of the plume leak.
But that leak, he maintained, released less than 25 gallons of hydrocarbons, far less than would be required to create the plume.
Still, he said, "Part of this investigation [into the plume leak] is, did we have more than one event? Did we have multiple events? We are continuing to investigate that."
He explained that the company has been focusing on two pipelines - a 30-inch line that brings raw natural gas into the processing plant, and a four-inch line that carries natural gas liquids, including benzene, from the plant to a tank farm on the far side of Parachute Creek for storage.
The four-inch line, he said, is buried beneath the creek, and carries a number of different compounds known generally as "hydrocarbons" or "volatile organic compounds" (VOCs) that flow up out of the ground alongside natural gas and oil.
The source of a leak that could have created the plume, Keylor said, was not found in either line after "aggressive" testing.
Retired engineer Bob Arrington, a member of the EAB, suggested that tests be conducted to see if last winter's severely cold temperatures had caused a crimp or small leak that might not be detected by high-pressure water testing.
The uncertainty about the source of the leak was not received well by the public at the meeting.
"It's time the corporations show that what they're doing is safe for the people," declared Benita Phillips, who said she is a registered nurse in the area. "I don't think that they really understand what they are doing."
Another industry skeptic, Richard Votero of Carbondale, raised his voice as he delivered his message of anxiety and doubt.
"My god, that could poison millions of people," he declared, referring to the potential contamination of Parachute Creek, which is a tributary to the Colorado River, source of water for the entire southwestern section of the U.S.
"This is a very serious spill," he continued, still speaking loudly. "Am I the only one in here that is upset to [the point of] anger about this?"
Votero's tirade was cut off by EAB chair Brent Buss of Rifle, who at the start of the meeting had cautioned participants that they would have only three minutes apiece to make any comments.
The main message from industry and government representatives, though, was that the matter is being dealt with.
"We've tested our pipelines, we've retested our pipelines," said Dave Keylor, vice president of Piceance Basin operations for Williams Midstream, the company mainly charged with finding the source of the plume and cleaning it up.
"The number one thing is to protect the creek," Keylor continued.
Two companies, Williams Midstream and WPX Energy, both were slapped with "notices of alleged violations" or NOAV last month by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).
The NOAVs were over the apparent leak - discovered by Williams workers on March 8 - which has created a plume of toxic compounds that initially was thought to measure 200 feet by 70 feet by 14 feet deep.
The plume was found in a 40-foot right of way owned by Williams, but which crosses land owned by WPX.
Although Williams reported no success in determining the exact makeup of the plume, testing of the groundwater between the plume and the creek has revealed extremely high levels of benzene, which is one of several compounds typically found in subterranean natural-gas and oil deposits.
Benzene is a known carcinogen linked to leukemia and birth defects, and national poison-control guidelines call for anyone facing benzene exposure to wear protective gear to avoid contamination.
The groundwater tests have revealed concentrations thousands of times greater than state and national safety standards for human exposure.
Keylor noted that despite Williams having taken 143 barrels of hydrocarbons and more than 6,000 barrels of contaminated water out of the ground over the last several weeks, Parachute Creek still shows no sign of contamination from the leak.
The tainted soil and water are being stored for eventual disposal.