An article in Monday’s Daily Sentinel reported that last September the EPA lifted the enforcement order that had required Williams to take actions to keep the underground plume (hydrocarbon contaminated groundwater) from contaminating Parachute Creek. According to the letter, the EPA had “determined that the threat of oil release to Parachute Creek … has been mitigated.”
CDPHE Environmental Health Specialist David Walker says we have a “gift of nature” to thank for saving the creek. More on that later.
The last update on Williams’ Answers for Parachute website was October 10, 2014. There’s no mention of the EPA letter.
When a Williams pipeline leaked contaminants that reached Parachute Creek in the spring of 2013, the company had “a gift from nature” to thank for the fact that the harm to the creek wasn’t far worse.
That’s according to David Walker, a state regulator who has played a lead role in overseeing the leak cleanup.
Two years later, Williams can thank its own actions, taken under the watchful eyes of state and federal regulators, for getting the spill site cleaned up to the point that the threat of further contamination to the creek has been deemed to have been abated.
As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency in September lifted an enforcement order requiring Williams to take measures to protect the creek. In a letter to Williams, the agency said the company had complied with the order and that the agency had “determined that the threat of oil release to Parachute Creek … has been mitigated.”
… “EPA almost never closes out (enforcement orders) before complete remediation is done, so it shows EPA is trusting Williams and the state to complete the job.”
But should we trust Williams and the state to complete the remediation?
The CDPHE appears to have scrubbed all data and references regarding the Parachute Creek spill from the website. If anybody wants any information about anything they first have to go to Colorado Health and Environmental Data page, then click on CDPHE Data Request System and fill out a data request form. The data is categorized and the funny thing is there is no category titled “Environmental Disasters.” So much for transparency. Doesn’t instill much confidence in the agency.
“We’ve made some remarkable progress,” Pat McCown, Williams’ senior manager of operations for western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, said in a presentation to Garfield County’s Energy Advisory Board last week …
Well I guess that answers my question: Why now? If the EPA sent the letter last September why did they wait until now to talk about it? Because of the EAB meeting last week. They needed something to talk about.
… The leak was discovered in March 2013, but Williams later realized it had occurred the prior December and into early January, leaking an estimated 50,000 gallons. The company estimated that most of that vaporized, but about 10,000 gallons leaked into the ground …
So an estimated 40,000 gallons is believed to have “vaporized.” For an analysis of what likely happened to that concentrated mix of heavier and hazardous hydrocarbons when it became airborne, please read Parachute Creek spill timeline reconstruction by Bob Arrington.
… Still, groundwater contamination in the area of the leak source includes benzene levels topping 10,000 parts per billion …
In other words, the underground plume is still there. Certainly that benzene-soaked groundwater isn’t stagnant. It’s polluting the aquifer underneath the creek with hydrocarbons. At least there’s no visible sheen on the creek.
Ok, so remember the “gift of nature”? I couldn’t figure out what Walker meant by that statement. As explained below, because “the bottom of Parachute Creek is at least 2 feet above the top of the groundwater table where the leak occurred” the hydrocarbons didn’t flow into the creek. But the plume is still there, underneath the creek.
WHAT WORRIED THE EPA
Meanwhile, at the leak source area, Williams has cleaned up the liquid-phase layer of hydrocarbons on top of the groundwater table, Walker said.
That layer of gasoline-like hydrocarbons had been as much as a foot thick, and the EPA had worried it would rise up and go into the creek, he said.
“That’s the stuff, if it gets into the creek, it travels very quickly and creates a sheen on the creek, which everybody does not want,” he said.
Walker said that “for Williams, it’s an absolutely amazing thing that that never happened.”
Had it happened, the liquids would have spread on the creek surface, creating a “situation where you have to go out and clean rocks, and clean ducks and (other) animals because it coats them,” Walker said.
By contrast, the dissolved benzene was fairly easily removed from the creek with the help of an aeration system, because benzene prefers to vaporize in air rather than remain in water, he said.
Walker said there are few other places where liquid-phase hydrocarbons wouldn’t have made it into a creek in similar circumstances.
But thanks to that aforementioned “gift from nature,” the bottom of Parachute Creek is at least 2 feet above the top of the groundwater table where the leak occurred.
“Most places, groundwater is in connection with the creek,” he said.
While the liquid hydrocarbons layer didn’t spread in the groundwater more than a few hundred feet, groundwater containing dissolved benzene spread further and was able to reach the creek where the creek and groundwater intersect farther downstream …
This last bit below about the pipeline should make you feel a whole lot better, especially knowing the pipeline isn’t subject to state regulation.
Pipeline operating again
Walker said Williams put the pipeline back into operation nearly a year ago with approval of his agency and the EPA.
“They did a lot of things to make sure another release like this would not happen,” he said.
These included moving valves several hundred feet away from surface water and adjusting Williams’ pipeline-monitoring program and alarm systems so they can detect smaller changes in pressure.
Walker said the leak that occurred was low-pressure and wasn’t detected by the equipment in place at the time.
McCown said Williams has had some prevention-oriented discussions with others in the industry regarding pipeline leak monitoring as a result of the Parachute incident.
While Williams needed the state and EPA approvals to put the pipeline back in service because a leak had occurred, no federal agency oversees that style of pipeline in general, even at a creek crossing, Walker said.
“Our agency gets involved when a leak occurs,” he said.
But absent a leak, the Williams pipeline also isn’t subject to state regulation.
Williams has said the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration does have a regulatory role over the pipeline. That’s apparently because it’s part of the operation of the nearby plant.
In fact, if any of this was supposed to make us all feel better, it does not. It’s déjà vu all over again. Just like the West Divide Creek seep, the EPA left things up the state and Encana and 11 years later it’s still seeping. As the results of the Phase III study showed, the seep has contaminated the West Divide/Wasatch aquifer.