Lack of resources limit inspections of oil and gas companies in Colorado

PARACHUTE, Colo. -- The majestic views of the Western Slope is why Bob Arrington moved there many years ago to retire. He feels very differently about residing in Parachute today.

"I would not recommend anyone move here," Arrington said. "I wouldn't move here again -- not in a heartbeat."

Arrington's frustration is the oil and gas industry and the seemingly ubiquitous site of drilling near businesses -- and even golf courses.

"That's the thing about air pollution, there is not a single fence in the world that will stop it," Arrington said.

But it is not Arrington's complaints about scenery that attracted the attention of the FOX31 Problem Solvers -- it is his belief that the oil and gas industry is not inspected nearly enough and  when they are fined penalties are too small.

Much of Arrington's frustration directed at WPX, which the state busted for not maintaining a proper stormwater plan.

Documents obtained by the Problem Solvers indicate pollutants could have flowed to Parachute Creek. The fine was $99,711.

"It's not enough to make them change their ways," Arrington said.

The Problem Solvers launched a three-month investigation into the records of WPX Energy, which changed its named from Williams RMT in 2012.

No single agency tracked all the violations, but multiple agencies did fine the company.

Colorado's Public Health and Environment caught WPX twice for water violations. In 2011, it fined it $275,000 and this year $99,711.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Commission fined it in 2014 $30,000 and in 2010 a record of $423,300.

The state's Air Pollution Control Division cited WPX in 2012 for $32,200 and again in 2013 for $7,000.

Since 2010, WPX reported 126 spills paying more than $867,000 in fines. WPX solid its Colorado assets earlier this year for $910  million.

"The fine itself is chickenfeed," Arrington said.

"The state statute allows us to penalize up to $10,000 a day per violation," said Mike Harris, a state enforcement manager.

But it is what his partner Nicole Rowan said that surprised the Problem Solvers the most.

When asked if the agency is able to inspect every single company, Rowan said, "No, we don't have the resources to inspect all of those."

"In terms of these construction site, our goal is 10 percent touch rate so of the 5,000 companies our goal is 500 a year," Rowan said.

Rowan added when they are able to inspect a site "around 20 percent of the time when we do an inspection it is referred to enforcement."

That information means companies like WPX have a 10 percent chance of being inspected in a given year and when they do get caught, 1 in 5 times something is wrong.

WPX initially agreed to an interview, but then canceled it. After trying to speak with an environmental employee at a conference in Denver, a spokesman called in from WPX's corporate office in Oklahoma.

"When we miss the mark, there is no one more disappointed than we are," spokeswoman Kelly Swan said. "Community engagement has always been a hallmark as well as a commitment to our neighbors.

"We are always striving to get better," Swan said.

Swan rejected the calls for more regulation, more inspections, or higher fines, arguing WPX was inspected nearly 1,000 times last year and that for every mistake they might have made, they helped the Western Slope's economy far more.

"Over the past decade, I don't think there is any company that has invested as much on the Western Slope as we did -- we are talking about $10 billion," Swan said.

As for Arrington, he hopes the investigation prompts an investigation, a dialogue, so oil and gas can thrive but do so in ways that protect Colorado.