EPA plans concrete bulkhead for Red and Bonita mine in 2015

September 30, 2014
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

Representatives from several government agencies, including the EPA, informed La Plata and San Juan county commissioners last week that the Red and Bonita mine will be plugged to help stem the flow of metals.

“This is a worthwhile investment,” said Steve Way, on-scene coordinator for the EPA.

The EPA plans to pay for the large concrete bulkhead, which could cost between $750,000 and $1.5 million, Way said earlier this year.

The Red and Bonita Mine is a major source of metals such as cadmium, zinc, iron and aluminum that have been flowing into Cement Creek and are responsible for killing off native fish and other species, the researches told local commissioners.

“We really need to do something about this before it gets worse,” said John Ott, general manager of Animas Water Co.

While his well water is in good shape, as a farmer on the Animas River below Bakers Bridge, he said he is disturbed by the pollution.

In 2003, the Sunnyside Gold Corp., the last major mining operation in Silverton, stopped treating the water in Cement Creek.

Then in 2006, the Red and Bonita started leaking high levels of metals after the American Tunnel was plugged in several places, which raised the water table, said Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

In recent years, the EPA and other agencies have come together to assess if plugging the mine would significantly reduce pollution. They found it contributes some of the highest levels of heavy metals year-round to Cement Creek and leaks about 300 gallons of polluted water per minute, Way said. A plug would help, but it would not eliminate all the seeping metals.

The mine was active for only a few years in the late 1800s, and miners carved out only 2,000 feet of tunnels below the surface that the EPA and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety could explore in 2013. After mapping the mine, scientists don’t believe the tunnels are connected to any other systems where polluted water could find an outlet.

The scientists also reason that the bulkhead could reduce the amount of pollution any potential water-treatment plant would have to process if one is installed. The Animas River Stakeholders Group has been researching treatment plant options, but it could be very expensive to maintain.

“Treating water, that is a forever decision,” Way said.

However, a valve will be built into the bulkhead, so that if it causes problems, it could be opened back up. To what degree the plug may raise the water table and how the water would be dispersed is unknown, Way said.

While this would be an EPA project, it will not require Superfund listing. It would be a short-term project by a different branch of the agency.

More Animas River watershed coverage here.


Testing the water: New CSU system monitors water quality at oil and gas sites in real time

September 24, 2014

Here’s the release:

A steady stream of data collected at oil and natural gas sites in the Denver-Julesburg Basin flows into a server at CSU, where researchers use it to analyze groundwater quality.

Complex algorithms sift through the raw data, scanning for any anomalies or sudden shifts in water composition that could indicate contamination in a groundwater well. The data is analyzed and displayed as charts and graphs on a CSU website for the public to view, updated with new field data posted every hour.

The network of monitoring stations and website are part of the Colorado Water Watch, a project spearheaded by CSU researchers to provide the public with real-time information about water quality at oil and gas sites throughout the basin that underlies northeastern Colorado and the Nebraska Panhandle.

The CSU team is led by Ken Carlson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, who believes it is the first monitoring system of its kind in the country.

“We don’t know of anyone else in the country who is collecting real-time data from groundwater wells next to oil and gas operations, evaluating potential changes with advanced anomaly detection algorithms and sharing it with the public,” Carlson said.

Water and energy

Carlson specializes in water quality research and over the years has narrowed his focus to the impacts of energy development on water. He leads the Center for Energy Water Sustainability, part of the Energy Institute at CSU.

In recent years, most of his work has centered on water and hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is the practice of drilling deep wells – 6,000 to Colorado Water Watch infographic8,000 feet in the Denver-Julesburg Basin – into a layer of rock that contains oil and methane gas. A mixture of chemicals and water is injected to break up the rock and release the oil and gas that is then extracted.

Critics believe fracking is unsafe and, among other things, pollutes critical groundwater supplies.

Proponents defend the practice, saying there is no evidence hydraulic fracturing is releasing pollutants into groundwater supplies.

The topic has become increasingly controversial in Colorado and the nation.

“It’s gotten to the point people cannot have a civil conversation about it,” said Carlson. “Everyone produces studies that back up their beliefs. This could lead to confusion and some people may feel they do not have enough information to make informed decisions.”

Enter Colorado Water Watch, a real-time monitoring system to provide the public with easy-to-understand water quality information.

Gathering support

Carlson approached former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who directs CSU’s Center for the New Energy Economy, about creating Colorado Water Watch during the 2012 Natural Gas Symposium.

Ritter liked the idea and from there, the two met with representatives from Noble Energy and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, which oversees oil and gas issues in the state.

Both Noble and the state agency agreed to support the project and serve on the steering committee along with representatives from Western Resources Advocates, a conservation group; the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission; and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association industry group.

“One thing that makes this project unique is that we involved a variety of stakeholders in the project,” Ritter said. “We have approached this with a spirit of collaboration, and that has been highly beneficial to the project.”

Science Senator. It's called science.

Science Senator. It’s called science.

Based on science

Carlson and his research team have spent the bulk of the past 18 months developing the monitoring system using off-the-shelf sensors, identifying Noble-owned or -leased sites to install their equipment, and designing algorithms to crunch data coming in from the field.

The team has published several papers related to their work in peer-reviewed journals including Environmental Science and Technology and Journal of Applied Water Science.

“We wanted this to be based on sound, proven science,” Carlson said. “We’ve spent a lot of time working on that and validating the system and our results.”

Sensors and stations

So far, the CSU team, which includes Asma Hanif, research associate, and Jihee Son, a post-doctoral student, has installed four monitoring stations as part of the proof-of-concept phase of the project.

Three are located next to active oil and gas wells throughout the Denver-Julesburg Basin. The fourth is a control site at CSU’s Agricultural Research Development and Education Center – or ARDEC – near Wellington.

Each site has a sensor running down a well that collects water data and is connected via cable to a nearby data logger.

The sensors are placed at varying depths to collect information on various water sources. Some snake 40 feet down and monitor primarily groundwater that is vulnerable to spills or other surface activity. Others, such as the Galeton station, are placed 400 feet below ground to collect data on the Laramie-Fox Hills Aquifer, a confined aquifer that could be susceptible to leaks in oil and gas well casing.

Water flows around the sensors, which send information to the data logger every five seconds. That information is then relayed to CSU’s server via a wireless connection.

The system is designed to not only monitor water quality but also act as an early detection system. If it detects an anomaly or major change, Carlson and his team are immediately alerted.

They visit the site, take a water sample and send it to an Environmental Protection Agency-certified lab to be analyzed. With that information, they can identify the source of the contamination – even if it isn’t from oil and gas development.

“The system can detect changes in quality that could be due to any activity in the watershed including oil and gas operations, agriculture, other industrial activity and even urban runoff, Carlson said.

Providing more information

Until now, most of the publicly available water quality data has come from samples taken periodically by operators or regulators.

In Colorado, for example, water samples are collected at a proposed site before a well is drilled, a month after it is in operation, and then five years later. That information is available to the public upon request but is highly technical and can be hard for people to understand.

Information provided by the Colorado Water Watch project will help fill that gap, said Mike King, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources.

“There’s a tremendous amount of suspicion about government and about oil and gas development, and we thought that bringing CSU on and participating would provide that level of objectivity that many in the public felt was lacking,” King said.

Jon Golden-Dubois, executive director of Western Resources Advocates, supports Colorado Water Watch for similar reasons.

“Our interest is ensuring that more information is available and that a larger set of data is developed so that we can better understand the impacts of oil and gas development and fracking on water quality in Colorado,” he said.

The $1.2 million project has been extended beyond the proof-of-concept phase and additional monitoring wells will be installed this fall.

Carlson also would like to add an air quality component.

“If stakeholders – primarily the public and industry – find Colorado Water Watch valuable, the system could be extended for much of the oil and gas areas in the state and maybe beyond,” he said.

From KUNC (Grace Hood):

Homeowners and landowners have long expressed concerns about how the fracking process impacts water quality. Colorado regulations require water testing with a half mile of where a well is drilled. The samples are taken before and after the activity.

But what happens if water quality changes over time?

That question is what researchers at Colorado State University have been pondering. Their demonstration project, a partnership between CSU and Noble Energy, installed monitors at four sites in the Denver-Julesberg Basin near Greeley. In 2013, they began wirelessly transmitting data from the wells to researchers who are watching for changes.

Now CSU Engineering Associate Professor Ken Carlson said the data will be available for the public to review and monitor at Colorado Water Watch. It’s a step toward greater transparency, and believed to be the first of it kind when it comes to monitoring water quality near oil and gas sites.

“This isn’t an industry effort, this isn’t an environmental-group effort, we wanted it to be balanced, and we want the public to feel like they’re getting information that wasn’t filtered by either side,” Carlson said.

More oil and gas coverage here and here.


Water Values Podcast: Plastic microbeads causing more probs than just water pollution

September 23, 2014

Study: We found the evidence suggested that fracking was not to blame…was actually a well integrity issue

September 19, 2014
Groundwater movement via the USGS

Groundwater movement via the USGS

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Seth Borenstein):

The drilling procedure called fracking didn’t cause much-publicized cases of tainted groundwater in areas of the states of Pennsylvania and Texas, a new study finds. Instead, it blames the contamination on problems in pipes and seals in natural gas wells.

After looking at dozens of cases of suspected contamination, the scientists focused on eight hydraulically fractured wells in those states, where they chemically linked the tainted water to the gas wells. They then used chemical analysis to figure out when in the process of gas extraction methane leaked into groundwater.

“We found the evidence suggested that fracking was not to blame, that it was actually a well integrity issue,” said Ohio State University geochemist Thomas Darrah, lead author of the study. He said those results are good news because that type of contamination problem is easier to fix and is more preventable.

The work was released Monday by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…

In at least two cases around one well in Texas, scientists saw people’s homes have their water supplies go from clean to contaminated during the year of study, with methane levels jumping ten-fold, said Stanford University environmental sciences professor Rob Jackson, co-author of the study. Methane, while not particularly toxic, is explosive and a potent greenhouse gas.

“I don’t think homeowners care what step in the process the water contamination comes,” Jackson said. “They just care that their lives have changed because drilling has moved next door.”

The scientists reached their conclusions by chemically analyzing methane and other chemicals in the groundwater. That let them link the contamination to particular wells, and then to discover what part of the drilling process was responsible. For example, they studied the precise proportions of methane, helium, neon and argon. Those proportions pointed to leaky pipes and seals, because the results would have been different if the contamination had come from fracking…

Cornell University engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea, who wasn’t part of the study, praised it, adding that he’s worried because “it’s impossible to drill and cement a well that will never leak.”

“There’s still serious and significant harm from what’s coming before fracking and what’s coming after fracking,” Ingraffea said.

More oil and gas coverage here.


Brighton works with oil and gas drillers to protect water — The Greeley Tribune

September 10, 2014

Wattenburg Field

Wattenburg Field


From The Greeley Tribune (Sharon Dunn):

For almost a month last spring, Brighton business owners found out just how important the oil and gas industry was to their town. In March, shortly after the Brighton City Council put a four-month moratorium on oil and gas development — to some residents and business owners, seemingly out of the blue, with no pending applications for development — the oil and gas industry reacted, showing the tiny town what that could mean economically.

“You have people like us, the motels, the restaurants, all these people who were doing a lot of business with oil and gas here, going ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing poking a stick in the eye of the major industry here?’” said Steve Whiteside, owner of Whiteside’s Clothing and Boots, 855 E. Bridge St., Brighton, who supplies energy employees with their industry-required flame-resistant clothing in town. “Yeah, we felt the effects.”

The ill-timed ban seemed to punctuate the moratoriums and bans that were ongoing throughout the Front Range, with five votes in the previous election in November 2013. But Brighton was the first such city to induce the rancor of oil and gas-related businesses that helped fuel the local economy.

The move prompted a bit of an uprising, and some local oil and gas-related businesses opted to do business elsewhere. Weeks later, the council rescinded the order under assurances from the industry that they would not submit any applications for development, so the city could buy time to study the effects it could have on its unique municipal water system that is almost entirely reliant on a series of shallow groundwater wells, ditches and streams in and around Barr Lake.

In that time, the city worked out a deal with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, creating an order that creates larger setbacks surrounding those wells and natural waterways that supply Brighton’s water. The new boundaries extend setbacks beyond state rules because of the unique circumstances.

“We met with operators, outlined the desire to protect the water System … then fleshed out details,” COGCC director Matt Lepore told the commission in late July. “It’s taken the better part of two months. It’s been a collaborative process, again with various stakeholders engaged in the process all the way.”

TIMEOUT

For many who hadn’t been completely advised on the city’s happenings, a four-month ban on oil and gas drilling seemed almost ridiculous given where they were — almost in the heart of the Wattenberg Field, where oil and gas drilling had been a mainstay since the field was discovered in 1970.

Kristen Chernosky, spokeswoman for the city, said it wasn’t really a ban. Chernosky wouldn’t answer questions other than through email and city officials deferred comment on the situation to her. It turns out the apparent knee-jerk reaction wasn’t so much about fear-mongering as it was a legitimate concern for the city’s water supply. The council opted for the “timeout” after hearing the industry’s intention in town, Chernosky wrote.

“Residents within the city of Brighton have been receiving leasing offers from the oil and gas industry,” Chernosky wrote. “The city also receives frequent notices from the COGCC about drilling applications in our area. … As a result of the dramatic increase in oil and gas activity in our area, the city of Brighton put forward a four-month “timeout” to allow us to revise our oil and gas regulations.

“Our oil and gas regulations had not been revised for eight years. The city council believed the timeout was unnecessary after the industry agreed to give the city time to update our regulations by voluntarily refraining from proposing oil and gas development within the city limits.”

THE BAN

Reaction to the event, however, was pronounced and potentially fueled by a growing resentment of an anti-industry sentiment across the Front Range. For those working in the oil and gas industry, as a matter of fact, it was time to do business someplace else.

“Some of the oil related businesses took offense in a big way and said to the city of Brighton, ‘If that’s your attitude about our industry, then we won’t do business in your town anymore,’” Whiteside said. “The whole kerfuffle got squared away, but it came to blows a bit.”

But in the two weeks it took to lift that temporary timeout, local businesses felt the pain.

Holly Hansen, president/CEO of the Greater Brighton Chamber of Commerce, noticed the effects almost immediately. Soon, her members were calling.

“I eat out in Brighton probably every day. And if you go on a normal lunch hour almost anywhere, you’ll see a long line of oil and gas employees,” Hansen said.

Hansen said officials at Halliburton and Conoco-Phillips tried to get the city to back off its moratorium to no avail. Word came down to employees. Brighton was suddenly off limits.

“There was just nothing,” Hansen said. “It was dead. … Something didn’t feel quite right. I had downtown merchants who weren’t really following what was going on (at city hall), in the first couple of days, saying, ‘I’m $1,000 down from last year at this time. What’s going on?’”

The oil and gas industry in that area of southern Weld County is huge. Halliburton, which is an oil and gas service company working with the likes of Anadarko Petroleum, has a massive facility just a couple of miles north in Fort Lupton, and had recently invested more than $40 million to stay in the area, after initially seeking to move further north in the county.

Several oil and gas employees had called Brighton home, and the time they spent away from Brighton business had an impact. The town also was reliant on other industry-related businesses.

“There was a gas station in town that had a sign saying, “We love Halliburton,” said Jared Whipple, an area resource coordinator for Halliburton, on a recent lunch at the Philly Cheese Steak at the Pavillions in downtown Brighton.

Shortly after the industry showed its collective might, the council agreed to rescind the ban. Meanwhile, the city would get to work with the COGCC on the concerns of its water system.

“Actually, as soon as the (measure) was revoked, business did come back to Brighton, and that made companies really happy,” Hansen said. “But also, and I talked at length with folks from Halliburton, they made it clear they appreciated Brighton and the support the town gives to families of employees. The overall kind of lesson was that oil and gas has to work in tangent with the city because it’s such an important industry.”

Business owners, while lauding any agreement the city could make, feel that cloud has lifted.

“From a business point of view, it was a bit shortsighted,” Whiteside said of the council’s ban. “It was presumptive, and I’m sure all with good intentions. But you know, people that aren’t really involved in (oil and gas) business maybe don’t realize how business works. It’s just such a key part of the economy in the area.

“It was a little frustrating, but government oftentimes proves they’re really disconnected from what’s reality. I’d think in this particular issue, they might have stopped and talked to a few people first.”

Small business owner Gary Mikes, who was opposed to any ban, spoke out against it to the council.

“It just sends a message that, ‘We don’t want your business, go away,’” said Mikes, who said his refrigeration business wasn’t directly affected by the temporary ban. “I look at it as a microcosm of what will happen statewide if we vote for no oil and gas exploration. These people will pack up and go to other places like Texas and Oklahoma, and we’ll be left holding our hands with nothing.”

The event laid the groundwork the city council was looking for in protecting the city’s unique water resources.

A NEW DAY

Brighton’s water system includes about 11 shallow groundwater wells near ponds and Barr Lake, both of which serve as water storage for the town, as well as some streams and ditches that are integral parts of the city’s water supply, COGCC Director Matt Lepore told the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at its monthly meeting held July 28 in Greeley.

“The circumstances in Brighton are unique,” Lepore said. “The regulatory agencies have crafted a unique response and solution that is appropriate we believe in these circumstances. The intent is this is a site-specific response to these set of circumstances.”

The agreement — which is not intended in any way to set a precedent for other municipalities throughout the state — will prohibit drilling around several natural water sources and shallow groundwater wells that make up a majority of the city’s municipal water system.

The commission unanimously approved the order preventing drilling from 500 feet around water wells and 300 feet from the city’s many streams, ponds and ditches, all of which make up about 70 percent of the city’s water.

Lepore explained that the agreement also called for groundwater sampling — once before and twice after drilling — for all drilling locations within a half-mile of water wells or from 301 to 500 feet of a river or a stream, or a ditch.

“All the parties with a stake in this have been engaged and crafted this order together and presented it as a joint presentation for approval,” Lepore told the commission. “This represents a great partnership between the state, municipality and operators. We all came together, worked hard and identified the issue, and we’re pleased to put this order in front of you and ask you to adopt it.”

COGCC member Tommy Holton, who also is mayor of neighboring Fort Lupton, said he could understand the council’s concerns about drilling, especially being new and having so much mis-information out there.

He said the agreement that came out of the mess, while not at all to be used as a template for other cities, showed that all entities could work together to come up with an amicable agreement.

Mikes said he was pleased to hear that the parties could come together on a plan.

“I’m encouraged they came to compromise. It’s shows the stakeholders they can come together,” Mikes said. “It’s 100 times better than an outright ban, not even considering the economic impacts to what happens when you totally ban something.”

More oil and gas coverage here.


USGS: Tuesday is Protect Your Groundwater Day

September 9, 2014

Denver District Court Throws Out License to Build Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill—Again — @sheepmtn

September 4, 2014

Here’s the release from the Sheep Mountain Alliance (Hillary Cooper):

A Denver district judge has ruled against the license issued by the state of Colorado to Energy Fuels to construct and operate a uranium mill in Paradox Valley in western Montrose County for the second time.

In a court ruling issued Wednesday, September 3, 2014, District Judge Robert McGahey found that the hearing process for the mill, ordered by a previous judge who invalidated the license in June of 2012, did not comply with the 2012 order. In today’s order, Judge McGahey ruled that a hearing officer must review the record established at the November 2012 hearing and make an “initial decision as to whether Energy Fuels application has met all criteria under state law.” Sheep Mountain Alliance and Rocky Mountain Wild retained technical experts who presented solid evidence at the hearing to prove that Energy Fuels’ application was based on false information and that the environmental review was incomplete.

“This process has been mishandled by the state agency from the start and the district court has agreed again,” stated Hilary Cooper, executive eirector of Sheep Mountain Alliance. “If the state chooses to continue this process, it will be taking action on a 2009 application for a project that will most likely never be built.”

Sheep Mountain Alliance, a grassroots conservation group based in Telluride, Colorado, has led the effort with Rocky Mountain Wild to stop the Piñon Ridge uranium mill based on significant environmental impacts to the surrounding region. SMA filed a lawsuit against the state of Colorado in February 2011 after the first radioactive materials license was issued to Energy Fuels. The Piñon Ridge mill would have been the first conventional uranium processing mill approved in the U.S. since 1980. The judge agreed with SMA’s challenge and ordered an independent hearing officer to conduct a hearing in November 2012. The hearing officer did not take action on issues raised during the hearing. Instead, the hearing officer sent the file to the state with simple direction to proceed with the license consideration. The state then issued a second license to Energy Fuels in April 2013. SMA and RMW again challenged the decision, and today’s ruling found that the hearing officer “failed to make a conclusion as to whether Energy Fuels application met all criteria for issuance of a license pursuant”.

In the meantime, Energy Fuels acquired the existing White Mesa uranium mill in Blanding, Utah, and admitted that they did not intend to build the Piñon Ridge mill because of unfavorable economic conditions and the redundancy of two mills in close proximity. In addition, Energy Fuels has entered into a contract to sell the Piñon Ridge mill property and other assets to George Glasier, the original founder of Energy Fuels, who is backed by Baobab Asset Management, Inc.

“The application lacks sufficient analysis of impacts to wildlife and the environment,” states Matt Sandler, staff attorney with Rocky Mountain Wild. “This decision is a win for the wildlife and the natural resources of this region. Our hope is that this remand will finally highlight the deficient environmental analysis included in the application.”

“The state has a clear choice to deny the Energy Fuels application and require a future developer to reapply with an updated application, which must address the conditions on the ground at that time,” states Cooper. “It’s time to release the communities of southwest Colorado from the false hope embellished by this industry for too long.”

More nuclear coverage here.


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