Gas drilling came to the Raton Basin in the late 1990s and along with it heavy traffic, noiseand what many locals believecontaminated water.
Did the state of Colorado do enough to help?
This story picks up from where our reporting in the fall of 2014 left off. Numerous residents had discovered they had a chemical in their water, "tert
-Butyl alcohol" or "TBA." No one could figure out how this man-made substance got therea chemical that wasn't detected until after gas drilling came to the area. It was a mystery, so the COGCC, the state agency that regulates oil and gas activities, investigated and published a report suggesting TBA was naturally occurring, among other explanations. Now the case is closed and the report, not only leaves more questions than it answers it resigns residents to live with water they feel they dare not drink.
The story is told in two parts:
Part One: "Good Coal"?
Part Two: "The Colorado Oil and Gas Cover-up Commission"?
Jamie: There’s a place in southeast Colorado just above the New Mexico border called Boncarbo. The name is a loose translation of the French bon charbon, meaning “good coal.”
Frani: “Good coal” makes sense because this area in the foothills of the Spanish Peaks is loaded with the stuff. As in mother lode. Back in the early 1900s Boncarbo and the Raton Basin were a huge and thriving coal mining area.
Jamie: We’re seeing remnants of the coke ovens as Frani and I drive west from Trinidad on state Highway 12. Mining operations are long gone after demand fell in the late 1950s and things stayed pretty quietfor decades.
Frani: That is until about 20 years ago when gas exploration came to the areain a big way. By some estimates, there are about 2,000 gas wells in the Ratonto the tune of about one well for every 40 acres today.
Jamie: Bringing along with it heavy traffic, noiseand what many locals believecontaminated drinking water from drilling into the coal formation to extract natural gas.
Frani: So for those who moved to Boncarbo for the peace and quiet, not to mention clean air and water.. Good coal? Not so much. Just ask Carol Vanderwall.
Jamie: We meet Carol at her house nestled in a pine-forested valley. Her dog “Jace” is jumping upexcited at our arrival.
Frani: Carol is a thin woman in her early 80s. She and her husband, now deceased, moved to Boncarbo from Denver 40 years ago and raised a family in this very spot. She’s seen a lot of change.
Carol Vanderwall: There wasn’t any activity for a long, long time. They had not done anything until the early ‘90s and then there was activity. Amoco was the player then and they sold to Evergreen. Evergreen just had their way with this land. Just drilled everywhere. Hundreds and hundreds of wells.
Jamie: To say that Evergreen, or more formally, the Evergreen Operating Corporation’s time in this area was contentious, that would be gross understatement.
Carol: A small amount of us pressed suit against Evergreen. They were in violation of the Clean Water Act.
Frani: Carol and her neighbors alleged Evergreen was illegally discharging produced water from coalbed methane drilling into nearby arroyos. The lawsuit was settled and they were even honored with a "Friend of EPA" award for fighting water pollution. It was a victoryuntil it wasn’t.
Carol: It was like having cancer. First you have encouraging results and then you’re down on the bottom again. It was something that was not fun. In fact Evergreen did a "SLAPP suit" against us.
Jamie: A so-called SLAPP suit is short for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. It’s a tactic used by companies to discourage citizens from taking direct action. The SLAPP suit against Carol and fellow landowners charged them with trespassing and libel. The libel portion was dismissed and the trespass portion (where they crossed onto private property to photograph violations) was settled in July 2000.
Frani: Mention Evergreen to landowners here and many shiver as though recalling a disturbing nightmare. The drilling company has since been sold to Pioneer Natural Resources and most say Pioneer has been a better neighbor. But still, all is not bon in Boncarbo.
Carol: I got the gold medal or I got the gold ring, or whatever.
Jamie: She’s referring to her latest water analysis that reads like a witch’s brew of chemicals.
Frani: You also have benzene and I can’t pronounce all these other "zenes."
Carol: Chlorine.. and all those hard words.
Jamie: Carol had asked the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, to sample her water because a previous test had shown benzene, toluene and increasing methane. Carol, like other homeowners we interviewed, had baseline testing, so she knew that her water had changed.
Carol: I called Peter because I wanted him to test the water in 2014 because I wanted to find out if pollutants had actually gone down.
Frani: She’s referring to Peter Gintautas, COGCC’s Environmental Protection Specialist for southeast Colorado at the time. He came out to sample her well.
Carol: And that’s when he got excited and said, “Oh my gosh we got TBA, that’s not naturally occurring.”
Jamie and Frani: He said that?? Peter Gintautas told you that TBA is not naturally occurring??
Carol: Yeah, he told me that.
Jamie: TBA is short for “tert-Butyl alcohol.” You might not have heard of TBA, but it's in lots of things you use every day like shampoos, nail polish and perfumes.
Frani: And also in shellac, paint removers and was a by-product of gasoline additives.
Jamie: One place it shouldn’t be foundin water wells.
Frani: So we’re surprised to hear Carol’s answer because just last year Peter, on behalf of the COGCC, investigated the incidence of TBA in the Raton Basin and published a report strongly suggesting the oppositethat people had tert-Butyl alcohol in well water because it was naturally occurring.
Carol: I’ll tell you what Peter told me about TBA when he first found it. He said no one’s done any testing on how this affects the human body, but there was a testing in North Carolina or South Carolina where they tested male rats and come to the conclusion that it does something to the urinary tract and gives liver cancer, and such. That kinda caught me up short. I’ve been drinking this. So, okay, I guess I better go for some clean water.
Jamie: So what are you doing now for drinking water?
Carol: I got to town and get 5 gallons at a time. From a reverse osmosis place.
Jamie: Are you using the water for anything from the wells?
Carol: I'm using it for bathing, for washing dishes, clothes. That sort of thing.
Jamie: Did he tell you anything like I think you should talk to the department of health?
Carol: No. (laughs)
Jamie: Did he say, I suggest you shouldn’t drink this water?
Carol: No, he never said that.
Frani: He never told you not to drink your water?
Jamie: This was just a decision you made on your own?
Carol: Well yeah. After being alarmed that everybody else is not drinking their water. And I’m saying, oh my gosh, mine is even worse.
Frani: Not only did Carol not get any direction about her water, it took COGCC 5 months to send her the results.
Frani: Are you going to have them come back and test again?
Carol: Yeah, I suspect I will.
Jamie: Just have to do another complaint?
Carol: Evidently I do. At this point, I’m just up to here. I can’t contain it all. But you’d think that they would come back and test it. On their own maybe even?
Jamie: Carol Vanderwall is not at all alone in feeling like the agency in charge of regulating oil and gas activity in the state of Colorado is not in her corner. We interviewed other homeowners who had changes to their water and COGCC refused to link it to gas drillingeven though it’s the only industry in the area.
Carol: From past dealings. COGCC is not really on the side of the landowner. That’s been our experience. So, I don’t trust them. The people that work for them, I think they tell them.. I'm talking about the industry, they tell them just want they want them to know so that they can feed the landowner just what the landowner should know. You have no knowledge of their drilling techniques. Especially with Evergreen. That was sad. It’s not been easy. It’s not been easy dealing with the industry.. or COGCC.
Frani: As good natured as Carol is, she’s clearly fed up with the state and its seeming unwillingness to regulate the industry.
Carol: I hear all this scuttlebutt about them not affecting the groundwater and that’s just a blatant lie. I’m sorry, it is just a blatant lie.
Jamie: It should be noted that the last time COGCC communicated with her was in a letter stating that the sources of the volatile organic compounds in her water wells was “unknown at this time,” adding that the investigation of her complaint was on-going.
Frani: That was August of 2014a year and a half agoand she’s not heard a peep since. Forgotten it would seem.
Jamie: In part two of our story we’ll try to find out if COGCC is going to investigate Carol’s water. We’ll also try to talk to them about their report on TBA in the Raton Basin.
Frani: We asked some geologists, hydrologists and other scientists to review itand spoiler alertthey came to a different conclusion. Reporting from Denver, Colorado, I’m Frani Halperin.
Jamie: And I’m Jamie Sudler and you’re listening to H2O Radio.
Jamie: In part one of our story we met Carol Vanderwall, a resident of Boncarbo, Colorado, a rural area in the southern part of the state just above the New Mexico border.
Frani: Boncarbo has seen intense gas drilling. Several residents including Carol have discovered that their water is contaminated, specifically with a chemical called "tert-Butyl alcohol" or TBA.
Jamie: The state of Colorado’s regulatory agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, won’t link the contamination to the industryeven though many residents had baseline testing showing the chemical wasn’t there before drilling.
Frani: The TBA was found in nearly a quarter of homeowner wellsand was also found in monitoring wellsand even produced wateryet the COGCC published a report suggesting TBA in the Raton Basin was either from adhesives used to seal pipes, or naturally occurring in the formation.
Jamie: This is a striking conclusion given that its author, Peter Gintautas, COGCC’s Environmental Protection Specialist for southeast Colorado at the time, had told a homeowner the oppositethat TBA wasn’t naturally occurring.
Joel Nelson: Well I characterized it as an opinion, rather than a scientific study.
Frani: That’s Joel Nelson. He’s a retired geologist who lives not far from Carol Vanderwall. He also has TBA in his water and said the report was just a hypothesisand not something that should be viewed as conclusive.
Joel: He couldn’t prove that it was naturally occurring any more than I could prove that it’s Pioneer’s fault.
Jamie: “Pioneer” is Pioneer Natural Resources, the predominant driller in the area. The report drew condemnation from residents who called it business as usual. Referring to the COGCC as "The Colorado Oil and Gas Cover-up Commission"or even worse. Many people here firmly believe that COGCC’s only interest is promoting oil and gas in the state.
Frani: So was this a good, solid, scientific investigation by the agencyor as some have called it, "a fluff piece" meant to make the issue go away? To answer that question, we sought out scientists for an unbiased review. And where better to find them than at the very place they train geologists and petro engineers...
Frani and Jamie: Hi, John. Thanks for meeting with us.
John Spear: My name is John Spear, I’m in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado.
Frani: Professor Spear is one of a handful of scientists we asked to review the COGCC report. The Colorado School of Mines is an engineering and applied science research university with special expertise in the development of natural resources.
Jamie: So what are your basic comments about the COGCC report?
Spear: My basic comments are that there is a lot of information there, a lot of it is well done, but I also think that there are other things that could be in there, but are missing.
Jamie: Such as?
Spear: Such as I think geochemistry is well represented there. There’s a little bit of microbiology in there. What’s missing to me is that I would like to know more about the geology. I would like to have a greater sample representation. They look at two frack flowback waters, for example. Why not look at thirty? Or fifty? Why not compare that basin to waters coming from basins elsewhere either in this state or going to adjacent states or even to across the country? I think that those sorts of things would help this.
Jamie: One of the conclusions of the report is that a possible explanation is that the TBA found down there in the Raton Basin was caused by PVC pipe or sealants on the PVC pipe to people’s water wells. Do you have thoughts about that possible explanation?
Spear: I think there is some legitimacy to that possible explanation. I would like to have that report, which is not in that report, compare to other locations where PVC pipes are used either for drinking water distribution to an individual house, to other wellsother wells that are in other parts of the state. It would be nice to know can they get a TBA reading from a groundwater well in Golden, Colorado that’s installed the same way?
Jamie: I’m trying to get to the point of whether they looked at enough PVC pipes in the area to determine whether that’s a good explanation?
Spear: I would say they needed to look at more.
Frani: A second potential source the COGCC identified is that the TBA was formed as a chemical breakdown of isobutane. It should be noted that Pioneer Natural Resources, also investigated this as a source of TBA when it first started appearing, but determined there wasn’t a lot of isobutane in the Raton Basin.
Jamie: That’s a conclusion shared by the scientists we interviewed, including John Spear.
Spear: I would agree that isobutane conversion to t-butyl alcohol is not a very efficient processeither chemically or biologically. I think that’s true. And time and energy are involved in that conversion, as well as the kind of microbe needs to be there that can do this conversion.
Jamie: Would it be important to be able to know what frack fluids the driller was using?
Spear: Yes. I think it would be important to know what they were using and the compositions and in the concentrations. What are in those frack fluids. The industry is always a little iffy because there is some proprietary knowledge to what’s in those frack fluids...my frack fluid works better than your frack fluid and that’s worth X amount of dollars. I get that. I understand that. But at the same time I think we also need to know what’s being injected into our subsurface. How much is able to come back out and what are the long-term ramifications for that?
Frani: In COGCC’s conclusions, the report states that "Based on all data available to this investigation, there is no indication that the source of TBA in the domestic water wells is recent CBM drilling, completion or production operations."
Jamie: This would give the impression that COGCC used every piece of information it could get its hands on to study the issue.
Frani: Only, they didn’t.
John Dolores: They did not take anything at all of all the reports that he had submitted.
Jamie: That’s John Dolores. He’s talking about his hydrologist who has been sampling his water well for years.
John Dolores: He’s been sampling it since 2005. He did the baseline test before they even started drilling in this area.
Frani: In 2006 a well cap blowout near his home sent water geysering out of his domestic well. After the accident, Pioneer agreed to have the water tested and his hydrologist continued to sample to find out if the incident impacted the water.
Jamie: It was in their well that the TBA first started showing up.
Frani: So by the time COGCC went to write their report, there was over 10 years of data about the Dolores wella wealth of information that would have added significantly to the study.
Jamie: But according to the consultants we asked to review the report, COGCC did not include the data in their study although it was available. COGCC did however, use data supplied from Pioneer, the gas drilling company.
Frani: We brought the Dolores water well reports to show John Spear.
Spear: So it seems like that this kind of data should have been included in this kind of report because this is more meat for the report. It’s a lot of data. If it wasn’t included then you have to ask why. There were a couple of indications in the overall report where I thought it was a little bit selective. Selective data was being applied. It’s another flaw of the report. Typically the way we do scientific reports is you want to do a thorough literature search. You want to combine all that is known into one place and then start digesting that information. That’s the way you should do a report.
Frani: As far as COGCC is concerned this closes the matter.
Spear: I would say in my mind it opens the matter further. I would like to know more. If this is truly a problem.. I mean we don’t know the health effects of TBA on people. There’s not enough information known about that. But if I were the EPA or the CDPHE here in Colorado, I would be wondering about what are the health effects of this. I think it warrants further study. I think this report opens the door to that.
Jamie: We wanted to interview Peter Gintautas on the record about his report, but we were told that his preference was to address any specific questions in writing. We asked COGCC for a comment about our story and they did not respond.
Frani: As far as Carol Vanderwall, her complaint is still open, and she hasn’t been contacted by COGCC for over a year and a half.
Jamie: As an 81-year-old widow, she, like many of her fellow landowners hauls waterat her own expensefrom the nearest town 30 miles away because she worries her well water is unsafe to drink. 💧