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.”