The rains and floods that suddenly overtook parts of Colorado last week have caused unimaginable amounts of damage to homes, infrastructure, and lives. And fracking--the process of drilling a fluid mix of water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale and release natural gas--may only be compounding the problems.
The Boulder Daily Camera first sounded the alarm on fracking in the Boulder area yesterday, writing about the thousands of gas wells, waste material tanks, and oil wells located in the flood zone that are in danger of being filled with water.
From the article:
Lafayette-based anti-fracking activist Cliff Willmeng said he spent two days "zig-zagging" across Weld and Boulder counties documenting flooded drilling sites, mostly along the drainageway of the St. Vrain River. He observed "hundreds" of wells that were inundated. He also saw many condensate tanks that hold waste material from fracking at odd angles or even overturned.
At the moment, there's no real way to confirm what Willmeng has seen--the area is still too flooded to provide a comprehensive report, though authorities say they're working on it. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) wouldn't comment on the situation, but wrote in an emailed statement that it is working on finding affected oil and gas wells in flooded areas. It's also working with field inspectors, environmental protection specialists, engineers, and government agencies to assess damage and determine the best response.
On the industry side, oil and gas companies are reportedly stopping production and doing triage in damaged areas. While companies say that they have added chains to tanks to prevent them from floating away, the Daily Camera reports that aerial photos show them floating away anyway.
The COGCC writes:
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is advising Coloradans that many contaminants, such as raw sewage, as well as potential releases of chemicals from homes, businesses and industry, may be contained in the floodwaters. People are encouraged to stay out of the water as much as possible. If people must be in contact with floodwaters they should wash frequently with warm water and soap.
"I'm sure they can stem the bleeding a little. I imagine a lot of the damage is done, certainly if there were open pits--and as I understand it, there are," says Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher at the environmental group Food and Water Watch and a former science advisor in the U.S. Senate. Drilling waste pits often hold an unsavory mix of chemicals and contaminants, including volatile organic compounds and metals like lead. And they don't even need to be flooded for damage to occur. They just need to fill up, he says.
"They have liners, and if if there is not enough space between the top of the liner and the surface of the waste, then you'll get spillover the side that soaks into the dirt and over a longer period of time can find some preferential pathway of flow and begin to cause problems," explains MacMillan. Where the waste flows depends on when the groundwater dries out (the wetter it is, the more it moves) and the different geological formations in the ground.
Layers of bedrock are heavily fractured--one layer might be impermeable, for example--but thin out in certain locations, kind of like swiss cheese. That creates "preferential pathways" for the water to flow. And it can flow far. MacMillan estimates that waste can reach can reach as deep as a mile underground, all the way down to the level of streams. Sludge can also contaminate sensitive local land that lies in places like schools, backyards, and farms.
Rob Jackson, a professor of environmental sciences at Duke University, agrees with MacMillan's assessment. "Any flood that breeches a wastewater pit will flush the waste and contaminated sediments into streams and rivers. Another concern is pipeline ruptures for oil and gas lines," he wrote in an email.
Once contamination has occurred, the only way to clean it up is to dig up the affected dirt and send it to a landfill--a big problem if that dirt is on farmland, for example. If waste has reached water, workers have to continuously pump out water and test it for contamination until it finally looks safe. But that's not a foolproof method: Waste plumes don't stay in the same place, so it's always possible that tested water is fine and other water is not.
Even residents who diligently stay out of contaminated floodwaters may still have to deal with these potential long-term consequences once the disaster has subsided. Oil and gas companies were likely prepared for flash flooding, which is not unheard of in Colorado, but nothing of this magnitude.
"We don't have a uniform set of laws and regulations that govern this industry and that provide basic protections from a public health perspective," says Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a staff scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council. "Without comprehensive regulations to protect public health, we're very hampered in the public health world in responding to disasters like this."