Vail-area lawmakers calling for state, federal hearings on oil spills in wake of flooding

By David O. Williams
Real AspenSeptember 27, 2013
Congressman Jared Polis on Friday called for House Resources Committee hearings on oil and gas spills caused by the recent flooding in Colorado.

Polis, a Boulder Democrat, represents Vail and part of Eagle County in Congress. He was joined by Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, in sending a letter to Resource Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., calling for the hearings.

“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 from the flooding,” Polis said. “Congress must deal with this issue to ensure that natural disasters do not also become public health disasters.”

As of Thursday, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) has confirmed 890 barrels (37,380 gallons) of oil have spilled in 12 separate “substantial” releases in the flood zone. They added they still don’t know how much oil has spilled from two of those releases.

Officials say they’ve inspected about 70 percent of the flood zone and they’re still tracking 14 other locations with evidence of oil releases, such as a sheen on the water, and 60 locations where there appears to be damage to tanks or other equipment but no obvious indication of a release.

“This is not a partisan issue,” DeFazio said in the letter. “People dealing with aftermath of a catastrophic natural disaster don’t need to worry that their health is at risk because of oil and gas spills. Congress needs to hold a hearing so we can assess the consequences of this flood and figure how to bring relief to the affected communities.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former oil industry geologist, said on a recent tour of flooding damage, “Given the power of this flood, the fact that there hasn’t been that much leakage, I think, is incredible.”

An oil tank in Weld County surrounded by floodwater (Bob Winkler, Weld Air and Water).

Eric Brown, a spokesman for Hickenlooper, said “it's too early to know” if a possible special state legislative session on the Colorado flooding would include discussion of the impacts to the state’s oil and gas industry and public health concerns about oil spills.

State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, a Steamboat Springs Democrat who represents Routt and Eagle counties in the State House, says she wants to talk to all the stakeholders about better setbacks to keep drilling and production operations away from streams and rivers. Current rules restrict drilling within 300 feet of a stream that provides municipal drinking water -- up to five miles upstream of the intake.

“In the both the committees I serve on, we’ll need to be looking at our current regs and working with COGCC and the environmental groups and the industry and the communities and see what’s worked and what hasn’t,” said Mitsch Bush, who serves on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and the Transportation and Energy Committee.

“I think we need to look at both groundwater and drinking water sources and also simply, as we’ve seen [with the flooding], other bodies of water – rivers, creeks, irrigation ditches, whatever,” she added. “We need to explore [setbacks].”

Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs for the industry lobbying group Colorado Oil & Gas Association, would not respond directly to questions about increased setbacks from water similar to increases in setbacks away from homes and public buildings that kicked in Aug. 1. Instead, he pointed out the scope of devastation and said oil leaks have been a very small part of the big picture, with less than 1 percent of all the oil and gas wells in the area impacted.

“This has resulted in thousands of Coloradans being displaced from their homes and millions of gallons of water contaminated with sewage from waste treatment failures, animal waste from farms and processing plants, oil and gas products from facilities and abandoned motor vehicles, household waste and chemicals from damaged and destroyed homes, and much more,” Flanders said in an email statement. “For such emergencies, industry has in place procedure plans they train for.”

Those plans resulted in more than 1,900 oil and gas wells being shut in, or closed down to production, during the flooding. Weld County, scene of some of the most devastating flooding, is home to more than a third of the state’s active oil and gas wells (20,554).

But Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action would like to see a ban on drilling in 100-year floodplains, setbacks of one mile away from drinking water sources, far more regulation of operations already in floodplains and a dramatic increase in fines for companies like Anadarko, Noble and others that have reported flood-related spills.

“When any type of toxic spill or release occurs, the industry needs to be held accountable, and that accountability needs to be swift and severe enough to deter future law-breaking,” Wockner said. “When people commit crimes we punish them. When the oil and gas industry in Colorado commits pollution crimes against both humanity and nature, they get a slap on the wrist if anything at all.”

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