Tempers flare over Barrett pit fires
The peace and quiet of Beth Dardynski’s Christmas Eve was rocked Saturday by one of several burns conducted by Bill Barrett Corp. to deal with problems in natural gas well pits south of Silt.”There was this enormous explosion 300 yards away from me. It was unbelievable, the plume (of smoke),” said Dardynski, who lives in the Dry Hollow area.She and other residents south of Silt have raised concerns about the burns. But Barrett representatives and industry regulators say while the practice has short-term impacts, it will end a longer-running problem of odors associated with buildup of petroleum condensates in pits.”It does get rid of the odor problem quickly, which we thought was beneficial,” said Brian Macke, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.The burning is in response to three notices of alleged violation the COGCC has issued Barrett in connection with the buildup of condensates in its pits. Barrett approached the COGCC with the idea of burning off the condensates. Macke said COGCC staff supported the idea if Barrett agreed to notify nearby landowners and burn only under favorable weather conditions that would help ensure the smoke would rise into the atmosphere rather than blowing toward nearby residences. Barrett obtained permits from the state Air Quality Control Division to conduct nine burns. They generally lasted from about a half hour to an hour.Contractors did several burns before Christmas and may do more within the next week, weather permitting. However, Duane Zavadil, Barrett’s vice president of government and regulatory affairs, said the company has decided not to burn off some pits because they are too close to homes.”We don’t want to have people actually feeling the heat from the fire,” he said.”Once it gets going, it’s a big fire,” said Jim Rada, Garfield County’s environmental health manager, who witnessed some of the burns Friday. He said workers even watered down nearby trucks to protect them.
Where Barrett chooses not to burn, it instead will have to heat the pits to 70 degrees to skim off the condensates, or remove them with a backhoe while frozen, Zavadil said.In spite of the notification requirement, Dardynski said she received no warning about the fire near her. It turns out her name wasn’t on a list of people Barrett told the state it would alert to the fires because she didn’t have a problem well on her property or live next to where one of the burns was being conducted.Despite Dardynski’s characterization of the fire she saw as an explosion, Macke and Rada said it’s more a case of the fire rapidly igniting.”It goes up pretty quickly once it does catch but it’s not an explosion. It doesn’t give off a boom or anything,” Rada said. He said the fires he observed “were very well done, I guess if you could say that about a fire.”The smoke went directly up before dispersing, he said.”I felt pretty good that there was no direct impacts to anybody in the area.”Dardynski saw things differently.”I had this huge, huge black cloud of smoke hovering over my house the rest of the day,” she said.Rada said the burns aren’t an ideal situation. He’d rather see Barrett prevent condensate buildup to begin with.
So would Macke. Other local natural gas producers use equipment to fend off the problem, and Barrett will be required to do the same, he said.Macke said condensate produced in the Williams Fork geological formation can become thick in cold weather and can’t simply be vacuumed off the surface of pits. The Williams Fork is the main target of natural gas drilling in the Piceance Basin in western Garfield County.Zavadil said the company already has installed large, heated separators on its wells so condensate buildup won’t be a problem in the future.He called the problem “rather unique.”Normally, in producing natural gas, Barrett also encounters low volumes of condensate that are like gasoline and never freeze. However, it has discovered an odd pocket of oil with natural waxes that solidifies below 70 degrees. It gums up equipment designed to remove it, then bypasses the separator systems and ends up in the pits, Zavadil said.”It’s something we haven’t really seen in the Piceance Basin,” he said.The discovery will allow Barrett to produce small amounts of oil in a region where natural gas production predominates. But it also created the condensate problem, which Barrett inadvertently compounded. Zavadil said the company moves recycled water from pit to pit for use in the well fracturing process. In the process, it introduced the condensate into other pits.Macke said the COGCC doesn’t allow condensates to remain in pits more than 24 hours because it can be a threat to wildlife and groundwater.Said Rada, “I do have concern that some of it’s in the soil because I watched the soil burn.”
Zavadil said that while oil and water don’t mix easily, it’s important to remove condensates from the surface of the pits quickly to reduce the chances of that happening. The condensates also create an odor that is exacerbated by bacteria that feed on the condensates, he said.Dardynski said the smell has been bad in her neighborhood, and has made people sick. But she also worries about the health effects of breathing smoke from the burns.”What they ended up burning off, we’ll never know the crap that’s in there. … These guys can separate this stuff. They don’t have to burn it off. It’s the cheap way.”Garfield County Commissioner Trési Houpt said it sounds as if Barrett is guilty of poor planning in letting the condensates build up, and she would have rather seen the company remove them than burn them.But she thinks it also failed to contact and educate people about why it was burning off the pits and why the practice isn’t dangerous.”People were really concerned and surprised that that occurred, and that shouldn’t have happened,” Houpt said.”It’s one of my greatest frustrations with the (gas drilling) activity that’s going on in this county – for the most part there is very poor communication.”Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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