Former gas industry ‘water handler’ now a whistleblower
March 10, 2012
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – A former water handler for the oil and gas industry in Garfield County says he quit his job over health concerns and now is working to make those concerns known to the public.
Aaron Milton, 36, has started an online petition to pressure the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reclassify produced water from gas wells as toxic waste.
The petition, titled “Classify production and reclaimed frack water toxic,” can be found at http://www.change.org/petitions.
Milton also is involved in making a documentary film about the industry with filmmakers Hamilton Pevec of Carbondale and Austin Lottimer, formerly of Carbondale but now living in Denver.
The film, Milton said, will be titled, “The Water Handler.”
“It will be my story, and there’s a lot of other whistleblowers that are going to be in there, too,” Milton said.
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Milton, who said he’d rather be called a concerned citizen than a whistleblower, told the Post Independent he recently worked for a Garfield County gas exploration company.
He declined to name the companies he worked for and with, and said he worked there for less than a year.
“I don’t want to do anything against the guys I worked with,” Milton explained.
His work involved handling flowback or produced water. It is a mixture of the water found deep underground in association with oil and gas reservoirs, and the surface water that is pumped underground for hydraulic fracturing operations.
Milton said he would often transfer produced water from one tank to another during the well drilling and completion processes.
He wore fire retardant clothing, a hard hat, steel-toed boots and a meter that would detect dangerous levels of potentially deadly hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas, which often shows up in natural gas formations.
But he was not outfitted with a HazMat suit, he said, or a respirator.
“It didn’t take but two days to figure out what I was actually dealing with,” he recalled.
“That’s one of my biggest problems with the industry,” he continued. “People are not required to wear a respirator when you’re working on a gas pad,” he said.
He said he quit his high-paying job because he felt his health was threatened and that his employer was too lax in its safety regulations.
“Every day, I was worried about what I was breathing,” he said. Methane, which some gas field workers refer to as “paraffin,” and gaseous hydrogen sulfide were the two of the substances he was most worried about.
At the time, Milton was living in a rented house on Silt Mesa. Tests done by his landlord indicated the home’s water supply was contaminated with toluene, benzene, lead and other compounds associated with drilling.
“After finding out all that, I was eager to get out of there,” Milton said.
Milton questions the safety of a regular industry practice of using injection wells to dispose of produced water that cannot be used again for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
“The problem is, that is not classified as anything but water by the EPA,” Milton noted. “But that is not just water.”
David Ludlam, director of the Western Colorado Oil and Gas Association trade group, responded that the disposal of produced water is done in more than one way, depending on a variety of factors.
“If Mr. Milton has concerns about the protocol for handling produced water, our industry is anxious to hear more.” Ludlam wrote in an email to the Post Independent. “I’ll be giving Mr. Milton a call next week to see if he is interested in meeting with our member companies so we can learn from his experiences and collaborate on how to address his grievances.”
The father of three children, Milton currently is living in Glenwood Springs. He said he has started his own company, called Resource Energy Group.
The company has developed a system for monitoring emissions from industrial equipment, such as those found in landfills, he said.
Milton conceded he probably will not be doing any work for local oil and gas operators.
But, he said, he is hopeful that with the petition and the documentary, he can pave the way for others to work safely in the industry, even if he cannot.