Colorado state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush says she plans to take up the issue of water contamination and greater setbacks for oil and gas wells from waterways in the wake of this month’s devastating flooding.Mitsch Bush, a Democrat representing Routt and Eagle counties on the Western Slope, told Colorado Public News new rules need to be considered for keeping drilling away from rivers and streams. The approach is similar to the state’s new setback rules for homes and public buildings, which went into effect Aug. 1. Current rules prohibit drilling within 300 feet of streams that provides municipal drinking water – extending five miles upstream of the water intake – but that setback doesn’t apply to bodies of water in general.
Also this week, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis announced he is seeking a congressional hearing on the potential impacts from oil and gas spills. Polis, a Democrat, represents Colorado’s 2nd congressional district, which includes Boulder and other areas that were hard hit by floods.
“Not only have my constituents been dealing with damage to their homes, schools, and roads, they are increasingly concerned about the toxic spills that have occurred,” Polis said in a statement. “Congress must deal with this issue to ensure that natural disasters do not also become public health disasters.”
Rivers across northeastern Colorado – including the South Platte and St. Vrain – have been inundated with a variety of contaminants from flooding that started Sept. 11. Mitsch Bush said she is concerned about potential health impacts of the 890 barrels of oil that regulators confirmed have spilled in the flood zone.
“Any oil, any condensate, has the BTEX [benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene] component and many others,” said Mitsch Bush. “All of those are very contaminating in a water body in relatively small portions. I think it’s really important that we don’t minimize what’s in there, but at the same time that we don’t have a huge overreaction either.”
Mitsch Bush said it may be some time before the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment knows how badly water sources have been contaminated. A department spokesman said on Tuesday that planned water sampling of impacted rivers and streams would begin Thursday – more than two weeks after flooding began.
“We still don’t know the extent or the level of the various pollutants, and we need to better understand that,” Mitsch Bush said. “It’s coming from dry cleaners, it’s coming from gas stations, it’s coming from sewage, every possible source. In addition, into the brew we have these oil and gas releases. People should be heeding the warnings from [the health department] for sure.”
Benzene is a known carcinogen that has raised concerns of elevated cancer rates. Weld County, one of the hardest hit by the widespread flooding, is home to 20,554 active oil and gas wells — more than a third of the state’s total.
As of Thursday, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission – the chief state regulatory agency for oil and gas drilling –confirmed at least 890 barrels of oil have spilled in 12 separate “substantial” releases in the flood zone.
COGCC officials also said that 736 wells and about 70 percent of the flood zone have been inspected, and they’re tracking 14 other locations with evidence of oil releases, such as a sheen on the water. In another 60 locations, there appears to be damage to tanks or other equipment but no obvious indication of a release.“Cleanup efforts are underway at some impacted locations where operators have access,” spokesman Todd Hartman said in an email. “They are using booms to contain and absorb any materials in standing water, as well as vacuum trucks to remove affected water.”
Asked about the potential for new setback laws or rules as a result of the floods, a spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group, said their continued focus is on recovery, safety and getting production back online.
“Once flooding began, over 1,900 wells were shut in,” the group’s Director of Policy and External Affairs Doug Flanders said in an email, referring to the organization’s website for shut-in procedures. “To date, this has resulted in less than 1 percent of the wells having any isolated incidents due to debris-filled flood waters.
Flanders did not specifically respond to a request for comment on possible setbacks or calls for a ban on drilling in floodplains. Eric Brown, spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper, said Thursday it’s too early to know whether oil and gas impacts and any new regulations might be one of the topics of a possible special legislative session on flooding.
On Aug. 1, new setback rules for drilling near homes and public buildings went into effect after a COGCC rulemaking process beginning in 2012. Those rules require drilling to be at least 500 feet from homes and public buildings, replacing 350-foot setbacks in urban areas and 150 feet in rural areas.
“Most of the controversial activity on the Front Range with regard to setbacks was much more concerned with residential, schools, hospitals, etc., and that’s really important,” Mitsch Bush said. “But my first thought is water – our rivers, our creeks.”
Any discussion on how far any setbacks should occur from water sources, she said, would need to be discussed in the two House committees she serves on, Agriculture and Natural Resources and Transportation and Energy.
“In my experience, you don’t ever get a perfect solution,” she said, “but you get a better, a good, a sufficient solution if you can work with all the groups and sit down, talk about it, work together and see what you can come up with.”