Fracking in the Floodplain: a recipe for disaster?

“Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water.  Yet when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it because they have no way to change it.”  Lao Tzu

It is a typical day in Boulder, I am sitting at my favorite table at the Laughing Goat Café. The same people surround me every Wednesday, mostly students, a psychology professor, and a 20 something that rotates between computer games and history novels. We settle into our routine, our predictable seats, sipping our regular coffee order (I prefer mine black, nothing “fanicucinno”) and enjoying one of the 300 days of sunshine we are spoiled with.

It is hard to believe that only one month has passed since the historic storm event, referred to by the National Weather Service as flooding of “biblical proportions”. Looking back, I remember walking by these tables in my bright orange Hunter boots wondering if the stormwater was going to overflow the curb. When the rain finally passed and the sun returned, 17.17 inches of rain had fallen over Boulder in six days and the South Platte River flood gauges reached 18 feet.  We had experienced a 1000-year rainfall event, meaning that the likelihood of such an event is 0.1% in a given year. Clearly, not your average rain.

Heavy rains and flooding cause unimaginable destruction © John Werk
Heavy rains and flooding cause unimaginable destruction © John Werk

The rainfall and consequential flooding caused unimaginable human and environmental destruction along the Front Range. There were several fatalities, homes were flooded, roads washed away, habitat destroyed and recreation throughout the mountains remains limited.  Residents in Weld County, however, faced an even larger potential disaster due to the flooding as wellpads were submerged, oil and gas pipelines damaged and produced water tanks were torn from their foundation.

I use the word “potential”, because although the photos appear incriminating, the environmental impact of the flooded oil and gas infrastructure has yet to be fully assessed.  Preliminary reports do however indicate that as many as 13,000 wells in Weld County may have some degree of flood damage and 43,000 gallons of oil and/or gas and 18,600 gallons of produced water were seeping into the soil and waterways.

Produced Wastewater Tank Overturned By Floodwaters © John Wark
Produced Wastewater Tank Overturned By Floodwaters © John Wark

Weld County is located in the prairies of northeast Colorado, approximately 75 miles north of Denver. The local economy here is generally driven by agribusiness and oil and gas production, with the later dominating due to the recent natural gas boom.  Of the approximately 50,000 wells in Colorado, over 20,000 are located in Weld County.   The impact of the oil and gas industry is apparent on the map below.

good one
Oil and gas wells in Weld County and the surrounding area

Several thousand of these wells are located within the floodplain of the South Platte River, which is a major source of drinking and agricultural water for northeast Colorado.  Along with these wells, infrastructure such as pipelines and wastewater tanks are dispersed throughout the floodplain.

I am not sure if any of you have been involved with development within a floodplain, but quite a lot of bureaucracy is typically required (with good reason of course).  Thinking about it, certainly doesn’t make me nostalgic for my engineering days; regulations, permitting, and calculations are some of the elements typically required. Many places are even restrictive about what type of land-use is allowed, often reserving these areas for recreational purposes only.  This however, is not the case in Weld County where not only is natural gas development permitted within the floodplain, but there are no setback requirements from water courses other than a suggested “gentlemanly” 50 foot setback.   Even though infrastructure is built within flood prone areas, flooding was not a consideration within the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) 2009 statement of purpose and rule making. Looking back this appears to perhaps be an oversight.  The following before (right) and after (left) satellite images show the swelling of the South Platte River within the floodplain.

The South Platte River: before and after the historic Colorado floods
The South Platte River: before and after the historic Colorado floods

As water toppled over the banks of the South Platte River the COGCC was quick to react, ensuring that nearly 1200 wells were closed before the flood waters could reach them. However, exposed pipelines and produced water tanks were vulnerable to the raging hydrology. Residents, concerned about what chemicals might end up in their water immediately began to photo document the damage, which gained the attention of many environmental groups such as Earthworks and East Boulder County United to name a few. Not only where these groups concerned about hydrocarbons and other chemicals associated with oil and gas, but the radioactive elements, benzene, heavy metals and other unknown elements in the produced water spills.  According to Ecowatch, “the toxicity of the liquids stored in these tanks is largely unknown, because they have been exempted from federal laws”.  Although the message of the following video may appear bias against the oil and gas industry, the history, video footage of the flooding and questions about development within the floodplain are grounded in solid research.

The COGCC meanwhile urged people not to rush to judgment until they had an opportunity to assess the damage and the environmental impact. They made several statements accusing environmental groups of exaggerating the impact in order to “advance their anti-industry agenda”.   A report in the Denver Post called the spills “small by industry standards” and both the COGCC and Governor Hickenlooper expected the oil and gas to dissipate quickly due to the excessive amounts of flood water.  The COGCC and many others believed the real health risks were due to the sewage system leaking millions of gallons of waste from broken pipes and submerged wastewater facilities.

Last week the first environmental testing results for 29 water samples were released. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) there was no evidence of oil and gas pollution, but there were elevated levels of E.Coli from the damaged wastewater systems in several areas along the South Platte River and Boulder Creek, supporting predictions by the COGCC.  They are still waiting for test results for heavy metals, but were anticipating similar conclusions to the oil and gas contaminants; negligible.

So what does this mean….we have nothing to be concerned about?  I am still not convinced. Fortunately, I am surrounded by brilliant scientists on a daily basis, which teaches me not to rush to judgment, to wait until the evidence can be evaluated and the results proven. However, the photos from Weld County concern me, because clearly contaminants were leaking into waterways. Were they at levels that are toxic to humans?  So far it appears they were not. It seems that the trillion of gallons of stormwater were able to dilute the thousands of gallons of oil and gas pollutants. However, we still don’t know about the impacts of the produced water and even if science proves that they too are negligible, the following question remains: WHY are these facilities located in the floodplain, in harms way?  Flooding is not a new phenomenon in Colorado.  Can we count on flooding of “biblical proportions” to dilute unknown toxicity of oil and gas during the next event?  I hypothesize that we absolutely cannot.

2 thoughts on “Fracking in the Floodplain: a recipe for disaster?

  1. Brian Devine December 3, 2013 / 12:47 am

    Great summary Angie! I’m afraid, though, that I have to come down mostly on the side of the industry and the regulators on this one. A few thousand gallons is a drop in the bucket on the South Platte River even without a flood; it delivers over 380,000 acre-feet across the Nebraska state line in an average year. Especially when compared with nonpoint pollution from agricultural operations up and down the river (which I don’t have real figures for, admittedly, but it must be immense given land use practices in the area), it seems like an oil and gas spill is a high-visibility, low-impact event.

    Secondly, the operation of wells in a floodplain was most likely deemed a minute risk, and that gamble didn’t pay off in this case. As you say, this flood had a .1% chance of occurring in a given year. Should we spend (or forgo) the extra money to withstand such an unlikely event? All activity carries risk, and it seems unreasonable to say that someone should have seen this sort of flood and subsequent spill coming on the horizon. I know that’s not exactly what you’re saying, and I agree that some level of floodplain planning is appropriate, but I would suggest that some level of risk acceptance is too.

  2. davidburchfield December 4, 2013 / 7:47 pm

    Hi guys. I have to add some nuance to Brian’s astute observations above. I think Brian does make some excellent points. Due to flowrate the contamination may, in fact, have been sufficiently diluted. Also, the flood was indeed a very rare event, but climatic models seem to indicate that events of that kind will become more and more frequent over time due to a more intense hydrologic cycle. Those are points I don’t really wish to dispute here. Rather, the most problematic piece of this issue seems related to repeated attempts by industry to escape scrutiny and governmental accountability. What broke down in the process that these potentially hazardous activities were allowed to proceed without significant regulation (I refer mainly to Angie’s indication that the chemicals stored in the tanks are exempt from federal law)? I think the crucial point here is that whether or not the spillage was acceptable, or the whether the content of the tanks is toxic or not, but that the public should have comprehensive power and protection through competent regulation. As a citizen, any degree of uncertainty regarding the health of our most vital resource is unacceptable. Any attempt to limit my ability to scrutinize activities that may endanger it is reprehensible.

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