Thu February 21, 2013

PDC Energy Says Site Is Clean, Investigation Continues Into 84,000 Gallon Fracking Spill

Just over a week and a half has passed since an oil well east of Fort Collins spewed 84,000 gallons of spent fracking fluid from a damaged valve.

KUNC's Nathan Heffel speaks to COGCC spokesman Todd Hartman

The company that owns the well, PDC Energy, says the site is now clean and has released its report of the incident to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

According to PDC Energy documents, the spill began Monday February 11th, “due to failure of the air supply system on the workover equipment, the travelling block descended and sheared off one of the wellhead’s locking pins, allowing flowback fluid to escape.”  The company says it immediately notified local, county and state officials. Fracking fluid gushed from the broken valve from 9 a.m. Monday until 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Around 2,000 barrels of fracking fluid flooded the site and was contained by an ‘earthen berm.'

In an e-mailed statement, PDC Energy says the well was capped  and earth-moving equipment was used to remove contaminated soil and fluid around the well to a depth of 18 inches which was then transported off-site to an approved hazardous waste landfill.

PDC Energy says after ‘extensive soil testing at the site,’ the area is now clean.

COGCC representatives were on-site during the event according to Todd Hartman, spokesman for the commission. I spoke to him about the incident and what’s next in the process.

Nathan Heffel: This was a significant spill. While PDC Energy says the site is clean, what does it take for your agency to say the site is actually clean?

Todd Hartman: We have a staff that has been engaged from almost the moment the event occurred. We had staff on-site very quickly afterward. We had additional staff on-site the next day with engineering expertise as well. We have been engaged from the beginning and we will continue to be engaged in making that determination. The operator here has to do a number of things which, so far, they have done in compliance of our rules which is contain material, move it off site,  and then sample groundwater and remaining soil to ensure that when they went to address the polluted area they were successful at doing so. And our staff will be involved in determining and reviewing the reports that are submitted to us that include sampling results from the operator’s efforts.

Heffel: How long will it take for the commission to release its report?

Hartman: I think it might be too soon to tell. The company has submitted a couple things to us, one was a spill report that documents the event itself and provides some information about the extent of the spill, steps that were taken to contain it. And they have also provided to us a remediation report which outlines what steps they’re going to take to address the issues to make sure the site is clean. I think there’s a timeline there of some period in order for us to be comfortable that enough work has been done, enough sampling has done, enough review of the surroundings has been done to know that in fact the situation is safe. 

Heffel: And the commission believes, at least at this time, that this spill was handled adequately and in a way that was consistent with commission guidelines?

Hartman: Our view of it at this stage, and we’re not finished looking at it… of course, an event like this is not a positive. We never want to see these kinds of events occur. We never like to see fluids released onto the ground. But there is an alternative looking at this –or at least an additional way of looking at this. At this stage, it appears the rules we have in place, the contingencies that the company had in place –everything worked. And so one way to think about this is: we have 50,000 active wells in the state, it’s a big industry. It’s an industry that’s providing a resource that we all depend on every day. This is the intersection of human beings and technology and industry, and from time to time there are going to be events. So when and if events occur you really hope they’re addressed like this one, at least the way it appears at this point.”  

Heffel: So it seems, at least from what you’re telling me, the system worked.

Hartman: Yes, we think the process did work. Our investigation is not yet complete and I want to be a little circumspect in the finality of what I’m saying here, but from the indications now that appropriate actions were taken and the issue was quickly and effectively addressed.

Heffel: The nearest house and water wells to this spill were around 15 hundred feet away and it’s about 15 feet down to the shallowest groundwater. Do the homeowner and well owner have any recourse if they disagree with PDC Energy’s reports or your reports for that matter?

Hartman: It’s my understanding the operator is out getting permission from adjacent land owners to take soil samples. If a neighboring land owner has any concern or actually discovers something that they believe to be an impact from this event we would absolutely want to know about it, we would absolutely investigate it. And we would absolutely hold the operator accountable if it was determined that there was an impact from that.

KUNC reached out to PDC Energy representatives on numerous occasions for comment on the incident, however they declined to comment on-tape and referred us to e-mails and reports they released to the COGCC.

[Ed. Note: A previous version of this story said "earth-moving equipment was used to remove contaminated soil and fluid around the well to a depth of 18 feet which was then transported off-site to an approved hazardous waste landfill." The correct measurement was 18 inches. The story has been corrected.]

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