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Parachute creek contamination spreads, spurs calls for more regulations, fines

PARACHUTE, Colo. — One month after workers first observed a hydrocarbon leak in groundwater beneath a gas treatment facility here, concerned residents and state investigators are still perplexed about how the leak began and when.

And the toxic chemicals, including benzene, a known carcinogen, which had been detected on the north side of Parachute Creek has now spread to the south shore, the state confirmed just Monday.

On Tuesday, for the first time since the leak was initially detected, harmful compounds known as “Diesel Range Organics” were detected in a sample taken from the creek itself, which flows directly into the Colorado River — although that sample, inexplicably, was found upstream from the epicenter of the hydrocarbon leak itself.

That upstream location showed the chemicals at 3.3 parts per million, just below the 5 parts per million state health limit.

Tuesday’s samples of surface water from Parachute Creek closer to the spill site and downstream from it tested negative for chemicals.

So far, groundwater contamination has been detected within 10 feet of the creek itself closer to the leaking pipeline.

“It is too close for comfort and it makes us nervous,” Matt Lepore, the director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission,  told FOX31 Denver. “We are seeing contamination in some of the bore-holes we’ve done within 10 feet of the creek. So everyone’s still on very high alert.

“We’re trying to move quickly and that’s a bit of a relative term. We got to poke holes in the ground with drill rigs and take samples.”

Last week, tests of groundwater on the north side of the creek showed benzene levels 3600 times higher than the state’s health standard.

“There’s 30 million people downstream from Parachute who use the water of the Colorado River,” said Dave Devanney, who lives nearby in Battlement Mesa and is part of a citizens group that’s raising concerns about oil and gas development in the area.

“I don’t think anybody would be happy to hear that there’s dissolved benzene or other hydrocarbons in their drinking water.”

The creek itself sits higher than the contaminated groundwater, which might create a hydrologic barrier — something that prevents the creek itself from becoming contaminated.

According to Bob Arrington, a retired engineer, the 30-inch pipeline where the leak most likely occurred runs beneath the creek, which could explain the contamination on both sides of the creek.

“It could have been leaking for years,” Arrington told FOX31 Denver.

Lepore concedes that a gradual, long-term leak may be causing the hydrocarbon leak.

“The operators who have the pipelines are transporting through the pipelines what is, for them, valuable product; and they monitor those flow lines and they monitor that pressure,” Lepore said.

“Ideally, the system would inform them if they were losing product. That’s one of the mysteries here. There’s clearly a significant amount of product in the hot spot we’ve identified.”

Lepore, who tried to allay citizens’ concerns at a community meeting last Thursday night in Rifle, understands the public’s concern, although he notes that pipelines, which are used to transport most of the country’s oil and gas, remain safe overall.

“It is an industrial activity. Spills and accidents do happen,” he said. “We have a lot of rules and regulations regarding setbacks and testing and monitoring to limit spills and environmental impacts.”

The ongoing environmental contamination here comes just as the state legislature, now entering its final 30-day stretch, takes up a series of Democratic bills dealing with the oil and gas industry.

One of them, House Bill 1267, would increase the fines that can be imposed on companies like Williams Energy, which is responsible for the leaking pipeline in Parachute.

Currently, the state caps the fines that can be imposed for environmental mishaps at $1,000 per day and caps the total fine at $10,000 — those fines are the lowest in the country and haven’t been updated for decades.

H.B. 1267, sponsored by Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette,would increase the maximum daily fine to $15,000, set a minimum daily fine of $5,000 for violations that adversely impact public health, safety or welfare and remove any cap on the total amount of fines that can be imposed as a result of any one incident.

With Democrats controlling both legislative chambers, the legislation has a good chance of passing and finding its way to the governor’s desk.

Devanney, who’s well aware of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s background as a geologist and what he views as a governing bias that favors the oil industry, hopes the Parachute situation puts more pressure on him to sign the measure into law.

“He is an oil and gas guy, and that’s a concern. Everyone else in the state seems to march to the same drum as ‘Gov. Frackenlooper’,” Devanney said. “Hopefully this will be a wake-up call.

“There may be 10 other leaks in Parachute Creek that we don’t know about yet; we just stumbled upon this. How many more are out there?”

Just Tuesday, the House gave final approval to House Bill 1269, also sponsored by Foote, to clarify that the COGCC’s primary mission is to protect public health and the environment, not to maximize energy development of the state’s mineral resources.

The legislation, which now heads to the Senate, also requires commissioners to disclose their financial ties to the oil and gas industry they’re charged with regulating and to tighten recusal rules in cases of conflict of interest.