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Oil woes at North Park’s Hell Creek Ranch

The Dumler family, 40-year North Park residents, say this discharge from an oil field upstream of their ranch may be operating under a permit that expired in 2006.

Ranching family claims oil field discharging under an expired permit; state monitoring, permitting and enforcement stretched by dwindling resources

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — While Colorado gubernatorial candidates Scott McInnis and John Hickenlooper theoretically discuss what changes they might — or might not — make to the state’s oil and gas-drilling regulations, the Dumlers, long-time North Park ranch owners, say they don’t think the state is adequately enforcing existing rules for an oil drilling operation near their Hell Creek Ranch.

Just upstream of their spread, the Lone Pine Gas Company, Inc. operates an oil field that, according to the Dumlers, was not in compliance with state regulations for several years. Even after numerous letters to state officials, the family claims the well continues to ooze polluted and over-heated water into small tributaries that flow into the North Platte River just a few miles downstream.

In 2006, a documented spill shut the well down, smearing oil for two miles along the stream bank. When the waste water flow stopped, algae mats that had been building up disappeared. For a short time, Hell Creek flowed clear once again. When the well started pumping again, the water in Hell Creek turned muddy and the algae returned. State officials claim the algae is unrelated to discharge from the drilling operations, but the Dumlers say the timing of bloom makes it clear there’s a direct link.

Lone Pine Gas Company, Inc. president Gilmer Mickey said state inspectors have frequently visited the site since the spill.

“To my knowledge, we’re working within compliance of all our permits,” Mickey said.

In October 2007, a state water quality inspector notified Lone Pine Gas Company, Inc. that conditions at the facility did not comply with a discharge permit, and asked for a response by by Nov. 30. 

“Failure to notify this office within the required time frame may result in formal enforcement action,” a district engineer with the Colorado Water Quality Control Division wrote in the Oct. 18 letter. Around that same time, state inspectors took water quality samples from Hell Creek.

The Dumlers said that, more than two years later, the oil facility is still operating on the permit that expired in 2006. There has been no enforcement, and the Dumlers are still waiting to see the results of the water tests.

State water quality officials said the issues raised in the inspection have been remedied, and said inspectors have visited the problematic oil field  twice in the last three years. The average number of field visits for similar sites is about once every five years, said Steve Gunderson, director of the Water Quality Control Division. The 2006 spill did result in enforcement action by another state agency, he added.

The oil field has been operating under a statewide general permit. Mickey applied for a renewal of the general permit. But the state is phasing out general permits, and  because of problems at the Lone Pine site, the Water Quality Control Division has decided to require an individual permit for the operation, according to Gunderson. In the meantime, the agency administratively extended the general permit, he said.

New state oil and gas regulations adopted a year ago were intended to address exactly these types of issues, but on-the-ground resources for monitoring are slim. And the agency faces a three-year backlog in processing permits, Gunderson said.

Environmental groups watch-dogging oil and gas development in Colorado say state agencies don’t have adequate personnel to effectively monitor and enforce regulations.

This week, Bill Dumler wrote an e-mail to the Colorado Division of Wildlife, asking officials with that agency to consider impacts to aquatic ecosystems.

“Our experience highlights that the organization of oil and gas regulatory agencies within Colorado fail to protect the environment and only support the producers … Why weren’t the private land owners, particularly those downstream, contacted when the oil field issued their plan 10-plus years ago?” Dumler wrote.

A state wildlife manager for the area quickly responded: “I don’t know if there is anything we can do in regard to your concerns but as the BLM and oil companies move forward in the future with oil/gas development a knowledge of issues/concerns like yours will help us in our attempts to make sure all parties involved provide adequate protections for the natural resources of North Park.”

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7 Responses

  1. This should be a good time for the Dumlers to get someone’s attention. Perhaps Robert Redford, who appeared on Keith Olbermann’s MSNBC program on May 19, 2010, would like to see this and at least part of the Dumlers’ letter to the editor. It would be one more instance that supports his line of thought. countdown@msnbc.com

  2. [...] Haikus, Lake Powell and the right to floatOpinion: Misleading information about scope of oil spillOil woes at North Park's Hell Creek RanchThe daily photoblog: Vail PassLender guidelines may hamper energy upgrade [...]

  3. [...] Two stories covered oil and gas drilling here in Colorado. Even as all eyes are transfixed by the scope of the disastrous Gulf oil spill, federal agencies said they will tighten rules for onshore drilling: More review, fewer loopholes for onshore drilling. And those changes won’t come soon enough for a North Park ranching family that has been dealing with ineffective enforcement and monitoring of existing rules: Oil woes at North Park’s Hell Creek Ranch. [...]

  4. [...] Read more on the history of problems at the North Park oil field here. [...]

  5. [...] new discharge permit with more stringent conditions that should help protect water quality. Read the initial story, detailing the problems, and the followup, with the response from the Colorado Water Quality [...]

  6. The woes continue with a recent new oil spill which occurred about a week ago. The polluted water is still allowed to flow and the oil field is yet again been given more chances to “cleanup” their operation. A new Colorado Health Dept permit was created but enforcement is weak; the field continues to operate even though it is under a Cease and Desist order. Still looking for the answer of why this field is allowed to dump polluted water into the pristine streams.

    Bill Dumler

  7. This shouldn’t happen. We are struggling in Routt County to defend ourselves from a lax O&G industry, and find the governor is our enemy. I’m sorry this could happen to anyone, but angry that that it continues with Colorado’s blessing.

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