Oil spills in U.S. western states threaten water and health, residents fear

By Jean Lotus
Urban oil and gas operations, like this drill pad near Bella Romero middle school in Greeley, Colo., worry neighbors that spills or toxic leaks could affect their health. Photo courtesy of 350Colorado
1 of 2 | Urban oil and gas operations, like this drill pad near Bella Romero middle school in Greeley, Colo., worry neighbors that spills or toxic leaks could affect their health. Photo courtesy of 350Colorado

DENVER, March 18 (UPI) -- Oil spills and gas leaks in the U.S. West, along with the oil industry's boom-and-bust business model, are worrying people who live near fossil fuel operations.

With the international price of oil collapsing this month to under $30 a barrel, smaller operators might be on the verge of bankruptcy and could go broke without cleaning up their well operations, as has happened before, industry observers say.


"The oil companies are in a precarious position. We will see how much they can endure," said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, conservation and energy analyst at the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities conservation and policy group.

"Small operators are hit the hardest, and that's where you see some real environmental problems," he said. "That's where communities are at risk, because [small operators] can go bankrupt and not shut down wells safely."


Almost 3,000 oil spills were reported in top drilling states of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico in 2019, an average of eight a day, an analysis by the nonprofit center showed.

People who live near fracking and drilling sites worry that water supplies might become contaminated, or that their health could be affected by toxic chemical leaks near their homes.

"I looked over the bridge, and the water in the Black River looked milky. It looked white," said Bert Rios, a 67-year-old retired heavy equipment operator from Malaga, N.M. Rios reported the spill to county and state health officials in late February.

Dallas-based Matador Resources, drilling for a pipeline to pass under the river in New Mexico's Permian Basin oil field, had breached the bank, releasing a white foamy substance into the water. The New Mexico Environment Department reported that the leak was drilling mud, a chemical grease.

The spill threatened the last remaining habitat of the endangered Texas hornshell mussel and polluted water used by area livestock, New Mexico's Department of Fish and Game reported.

"I'm glad I spoke up," Rios said. "There's those who wouldn't have said anything. I grew up here. My grandchildren swim in that river. My brother owns property on that river. I go fishing there in the summer."


Methane emissions from the thousands of natural gas wells in the Permian Basin spiked by 228 percent in 2019 to 8.1 million cubic feet from 2.5 million cubic feet in 2018, the analysis found. Methane has more than 100 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Despite the tight profits for producers of oil, which was selling at around $65 per barrel in November, drilling has increased in the United States. In 2019, U.S. crude output rose to 12.3 million barrels per day from 11 million in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"If you drill, there will be spills. It's inevitable," Prentice-Dunn said.

State agencies reported 23,600 barrels of oil spilled last year in the three states, along with 170,223 barrels of produced water, a byproduct of drilling that contains toxic chemicals.

On Colorado's Front Range, new housing conflicts with oil and gas drilling on the hydrocarbon-rich Denver-Julesburg oil and shale field.

Broomfield, Colo., resident Mackenzie Carignan described the smell of gasses emitted last year from drilling mud at Broomfield's new mega oil fracking pad with dozens of wells a mile from her house.

"It was a burning rubber mixed with rubbing alcohol smell that felt like it physically closed your throat," Carignan said. "My kids were gagging in their beds."


In Greeley, a toxic gas-sniffing mobile truck from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment identified more than 100 episodes last fall of elevated levels of cancer-causing benzene near a local middle school, an analysis released March 12 shows.

The school is about 800 feet from a drilling pad with 11 wells, a tank and other buildings.

The symptoms of benzene exposure include headaches and irritation of the eyes, and nose. Those symptoms could be mistaken by families as symptoms of a cold, said Patricia Nelson, the mother of a student.

"One of our worst fears has been realized. We were fearful there would be health impacts [from the wells] affecting our children, and that's exactly what has happened," she said.

About 65 percent of Colorado's 636 oil spills, which dumped 30,505 barrels of material last year, occurred less than a mile from a human residence, the Center for Western Priorities analysis shows. About 77 percent of spills were within a mile of well water.

"We know some of these spills are happening close to communities, and that's a problem," Prentice-Dunn said.

In Wyoming, Hot Springs County neighbors who drink water from the Boysen Reservoir oppose plans to increase the produced water released from the Moneta Divide oil and gas field to 8 million gallons per day from 2 million.


"We're the first community on the north side of the Wind River Canyon," said Mike Chimenti, the mayor of Thermopolis, population 3,000, which is near the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. "A lot of carcinogens, cancer-causing agents, are being dumped into Boysen reservoir that travel down the Bighorn River to us."

Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality issued a violation to Riverton, Wyo.,-based Aethon Energy Operating LLC for discharging polluted produced water that ended up in the Boyson drinking-water reservoir.

The regulatory agency found black sediment deposits, foams and free oil deposits in Alkali and Badwater creeks below the oil field, according to a violation notice. Both creeks empty into the reservoir.

Produced water from the oil field was not clean enough for livestock and wildlife to drink, as required by the EPA's Clean Water Act, said Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate of the Lander-Wyo.,-based Wyoming Outdoor Council, a non-profit environmental group.

The water from the oil field contained chlorides, sulfates, salt and other possible contaminants, including benzene, which were poisoning the local creeks, Heilig said.

Financial pressure on oil and gas companies that can go broke increases environmental threats for communities near oil and gas operations, Prentice-Dunn said.

"In the past, we've seen the cost to reclaim all these abandoned wells has far outstripped the amount of bonds the government has to pay for it," he said.


"What a crash in the oil market could portend are wells being abandoned, and taxpayers will be left on the hook."

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