An Eight Year Cover-Up

By Lisa Bracken

March 09, 2004

The day the earth shook from a massive gas kick at the “Arbaney” well.  The ground rumbled over a mile away in all directions.

Post-Kick Arbaney Well Flare – The event that started it all

Three weeks later, an estimated 115 million cubic feet blow out of natural gas followed at the “Schwartz” well.

On April, 01, 2004, a neighbor called to tell us he had found bubbles in the creek which lighted on fire when a match was applied to them. This event later became known as the West Divide Creek Seep. We immediately notified the COGCC, Colorado Dept of Public Health and Environment, Dept of Wildlife (DOW), even the EPA and Hazmat. A field inspector for the COGCC responded as did a DOW officer. The DOW officer left shortly after responding. His appearance did not lead to any known official action. Though a number of agencies were notified, the COGCC had, through a “Memorandum of Agreement”, the authority to coordinate and oversee the situation because the event involved oil and gas operations.

Given the extent of the seep, we thought it was incredible that only a single, 24-hr (time span) air sampling effort was conducted and no measures were taken to keep wildlife away from the area of contaminated creek waters. The COGCC deferred much of the monitoring and associated costs to EnCana, who contracted much of its remedial work to Cordilleran Compliance Services, Inc.

According to the COGCC’s  April 27, 2004 Update – West Divide Creek Seep Investigation:

“On April 17, 2004, EnCana’s consultant, Cordilleran Compliance Services, Inc (Cordilleran) collected five 24 hour air toxics samples from locations adjacent to the West Divide Creek seep area and two adjacent residences. These samples were submitted to Air Toxics Ltd. of Folsom, California for analysis by EPA SW 846 method TO-15 using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). Sample results received on April 22, 2004, showed very low air concentrations of the chemical compounds ethanol, hexane, cyclohexane, and heptane for some of the sample sites. Currently, EnCana is having the analytical results reviewed by an industrial hygienist.”

From the same update cited above:  “On April 20, 2004, EnCana initiated a biological study to monitor aquatic life in the West Divide Creek with Colorado Mountain College’s (CMC) natural resources staff. The CMC team will spearhead the investigation. A team of residents near the seep area has joined in this effort to measure impacts, if any, to aquatic life from the seep.”

Of note: My father, Robert Blackcloud and I participated in the biological study with other nearby residents affected by the seep, and welcomed EnCana’s initiative to monitor aquatic health.  The final results of this study, however, were never released. Ironically, during this early period of ‘study’ the area experienced a mass exodus of wildlife. Wildlife unable to escape simply died and the carcasses were scavenged by flocks of vultures. For several weeks after the event, we saw everything from bumblebees to birds lying dead where they apparently fell. Eventually, even the ants and vultures left the area, and only swarms of hornets remained. While we attempted to have these animals tested, no agency would respond.

A moratorium was placed on an area encompassing two miles around what quickly became defined by the COGCC as the “main seep” (this “main seep” site was a relatively small area generally confined to the creek waters on the Langegger property). Unfortunately, the main seep area was inappropriately delineated, and the COGCC ignored other readily defined areas of vigorous bubbling and seeping which closely mirrored characteristics of the main seep area. One of these other areas had even been the site of original discovery and validation by the COGCC’s own field inspector (this is an area near the vehemently controversial Monitor Well 23).

Eventually, new stipulations were developed and placed on drilling operations in the area, including limits on how many wells may be drilled at one time; certain reporting protocol; and limits upon how many rigs per operator are allowed within the former moratorium area:  East Mamm Creek Area Notice to Operators (EMCA)

During that 2004 seep, EnCana had failed to re-cement a well which lost circulation (dropping thousands of feet of well-bore cement presumably into an underground fault). They failed to re-cement the well then went ahead and fracked it anyway, without telling anyone what they had done.

After the seep was discovered, too late for my father who already drank the water, EnCana was ordered to re-cement the well. Failed cementing is often cited as the sole reason behind instances where ground water appears to have been contaminated by drilling and fracking operations. These instances are becoming increasingly common across the US and worldwide.

EnCana re-cemented the well, and the seep eased off, maybe 80 percent. However, regardless of cementing which was presumed to have sealed the leaking well, the remainder of the seep continues unabated, pumping benzene far in excess of state allowances (and possibly fracking chemicals) into the ground water of West Divide Creek. The COGCC, the EPA, and EnCana cannot explain why the seep continues, even as fracking stands as the prime suspect. We do not know about the fracking chemicals because federal and state laws protect EnCana from disclosing them.

The moratorium, earlier imposed by the COGCC, was soon lifted under pressure from EnCana and other operators to continue drilling.

In 2008, a second seep emerged. However then the COGCC, under new director, Dave Neslin and new Democratic Governor Ritter turned away and refused to investigate until years later. Finally, in 2010, upon an initial effort to investigate the 2008 seep (without ever actually acknowledging it) production gas containing methane, propane, butane, ethane and pentane was found to have emerged in new areas of West Divide Creek as well as within a neighbor’s water well.

While initially promising, the investigation fell completely silent upon a third party’s engineering review of suspect area wells (all of which have been fracked). Finally, almost a year later and after the COGCC subjected the original report to at least four different interpretations for purposes of four different presentations to four different entities (BLM, EPA, COGCC and a handful of landowners), the report was released.

As a part of that investigation, a soil-gas survey was conducted on our property along West Divide Creek. [Click here and scroll down to 2010 Soil-gas survey results] That survey finally confirmed the presence of thermogenic gas seeping into the new areas of the creek, and further quantified it. Despite high concentrations of methane as well as propane, butane and other homologs, the COGCC continues to refuse to notify residents of any potential correlation between that fugitive gas and any wells that may be contributing to the seep. It is inconceivable that the COGCC would refuse to determine the source of such contamination, particularly since the third-party engineering review revealed critical failures in drilling and fracking practices and led to yet another round of COGCC-issued drilling stipulations. Not only did the COGCC refuse to follow-up or compositionally type the newly seeping gas to failed wells (or at least notify residents of such results), they continue to refuse the installation of even a single shallow groundwater monitor in the area of the new seep to help determine the scope and potential source of contamination – all the while denying impacts from drilling or fracking, and continuing to attempt to discredit my claim of such impact on the COGCC’s Gasland Correction Document.

Pushed as a tool of justification, the third party engineering report (without benefit of a ground and surface water review or a proper environmental review) formed the basis of the COGCC’s decision to allow EnCana to drill directly into the existing and still unexplained 2004/2008 hydro-geologic seep structure.

Why is this important? Because – like the 2004 “investigation” – the 2010 “investigation” was once again inappropriately narrowed in scope excluding incredibly telling components of operational failure including hydrology, surface impacts, and the role of the 800 pound gorilla – fracking. The investigation concluded prematurely and remains incomplete, reflecting the COGCC’s habitual pattern of insufficient and narrowly addressed inquiry.

It is this inappropriate analysis coupled with EnCana’s aggressive and heedless disregard for consequence which has produced avoidable catastrophe after avoidable catastrophe along West Divide Creek – and impacting all downstream water users.

With the blessing of the COGCC, EnCana is now pillaging the remainder of West Divide Creek by drilling into and exploiting a fragile and sensitive watershed already hemorrhaging benzene. [Click here for larger visual]

Drilling began January 9th, 2012 – oh incidentally – less than a month later, COGCC Director, Dave Neslin, announced plans to leave his post to work for a law firm that represents EnCana.

Despite the continuing, unexplained 2004 and 2008 seeps meeting and exceeding every criterion for the EPA’s new hydraulic fracturing study, the region was excluded as an area of interest. It had been scheduled as “Case Study Number 2″; but, the EPA’s overly political advisory panel apparently persuaded the EPA to excise it from the study. Why not study the only known case in the US where hydraulic fracturing was directly implicated in a massive blowout that continues unexplained to this day?

Perhaps because of what it might reveal which can be neither fixed nor defended and which might actually curtail the heedless, aggressive pursuit of natural gas across the country together with its infrastructural development as the new oil.

For more information:

West Divide Creek Seep 2004

West Divide Creek Seep 2008

Timeline of Events

Journey of the Forsaken

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7 Comments on “An Eight Year Cover-Up”

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