Crews will work the rest of the week to continue clean up efforts on an oil spill in the Salt Wash area of Grand County that happened on Wednesday, May 21, but Bureau of Land Management officials say reclamation on the area will be an on-going effort.
The 45-year-old well, operated by S.W. Energy Corp. of Salt Lake City, was reported leaking on Wednesday, May 21 at a site about 12 miles southeast of the town of Green River. At one point, BLM Moab field manager Beth Ransel said 3,000 to 4,000 gallons per hour were leaking from the well. The leak was reported as contained by Thursday, May 22. However, heavy rains moved in to the area on Friday, May 23 and caused the contained areas to overflow, with some of the material running down the wash and into the Green River. Ransel said the entire amount of the spill and the amount that entered the river are still unknown.
“The amount of fluid that flowed from the well before it was brought under control on May 22 is unknown. The fluid consisted of primarily produced water with some oil mixed in at an estimated ratio of 2:1 produced water to oil,” Ransel said. “The amount of oil residues within the wash that mobilized during the severe storm event and overcame prevention measures on the evening of May 23 and entered the river is unknown.”
The well operator was not utilizing a monitoring device known as SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition system), which alerts operators to problems. Ransel did not indicated if the device would have minimized the leak time.
“Operators generally utilize contract staff to regularly monitor their well facilities, though some operators choose to monitor utilizing a SCADA system,” she said. “In this case, it is thought that S.W. Energy’s contract staff that were monitoring the well site observed and reported the leak in a timely manner.”
When asked why a containment berm was not constructed around the well pad and head, Ransel said that because accidents at well heads are unusual, the placement of berms around well heads is a newer practice for well operators.
According to Fidelity Exploration and Production Company, placing a containment berm around the well pad could hold in precipitation and could lead to unsafe conditions.
“Typical well pads have spill containment berms around the tank facilities and oil and gas processing equipment, which is where the majority of pad spills occur,” Fidelity’s Mike said. “Drilling pads, and specifically the well head area, are required to be easily accessible for the drilling rig, workover rig and ancillary equipment and personnel. This area must be flat, clean and dry for safe and efficient well operations. A submerged or bermed well head would collect fluids, precipitation, and could be a settling point for heavier than air natural gases, in the unlikely event there was an undetected gas leak. The size of a standard well pad typically provides an adequate buffer zone to contain a spill until it is identified. It is fairly standard for operators to have daily surveillance of each well pad, especially in areas of elevated environmental sensitivity.”
The BLM is working with S.W. Energy Corp, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Division of Water Quality (DWQ) to clean up and assess the area for damage, but Ransel said the immediate impact to the environment is still being evaluated.
Ransel said the DEQ and DWQ have collected water samples from the Green River to determine impact on resources from the spill.
“Water samples were collected by a representative from the (DEQ and DWQ) the day immediately following the severe storm event,” she said. “Additionally, as part of assessing potential resource impacts within the river corridor, the BLM boated the river on (Saturday) May 31, along with representatives from the (DEQ and DWQ) and water samples were collected.”
The results taken by the DWQ were analyzed and results from those tests are available on the DWQ website, said Bethany Hyatt, communication specialist for the DEQ. The website for the DEQ is www.deq.utah.gov/locations/G/greenriver/greenriversaltwash.htm.
The DEQ report said: “Analytical test results from the sampling on May 24, 2014, did not show any hydrocarbons present in the Green River or in the confluence area of Salt Wash as it flows into the Green River.”
Representatives from the Utah Rivers Council, Sierra Club, and Living Rivers said they are not pleased with the BLM’s response to the spill. In a press release Friday, May 30, Living Rivers executive director John Weisheit questioned why water samples had not been collected downstream from the site of the spill.
“Even a child would look at the swollen Green River and know the oil had moved quickly downstream,” he said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous no one traveled downstream to look for oil.”
The groups said an amateur photographer in the Salt Wash area during the time of the spill captured images of what appears to be a “giant plume” of oil floating down the Green River.
“It’s offensive to hear the BLM say they’re ‘pleased’ after a large quantity of oil entered the water supply for millions of people,” Utah Rivers Council executive director Zach Frankel said. “The BLM failed the public and it’s high time to acknowledge their mistakes instead of green-washing this pollution. They should be warning the public about exposure to this oil, instead of pretending it’s not there.”
University of Utah professor of geology and geophysics William P. Johnson said the potential for long-term effects from the spill in the area’s soil and ground water depend on the amount of hydrocarbons that were contained within the spill. Hydrocarbons are a compound of hydrogen and carbon that make up fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.
“A big consideration is that it wasn’t just fuel, it was water with hydrocarbons in it, and effects depend to a large extent on how much fuel was actually in the water,” he said. “There can be a huge range. You can have water with dissolved hydrocarbons in it or water that has globs of fuel in it. Those are two very different things. The effects are going to be very different depending on if it is stuff that dissolves in water or is carried in the water.”
Johnson said fuel spills usually contain a mixture of smaller hydrocarbon molecules that dissolve in water and larger molecules that tend not to dissolve and will not degrade away on their own.
“The primary concern is how much of the hydrocarbon was entrained in the water or dissolved in the water,” he said.
Soil contains a bacteria, often termed as a “bug,” that is capable of consuming oil. The bugs survive on hydrocarbons and do not leave behind any type of toxic residue. The bugs have helped clean up oil spills as big as the 800-million-liter oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Johnson said the bugs’ ability to clean up oil spills depends on how dense the hydrocarbons are in the water and fuel mixture.
“If it was the vapor stuff, bugs know how to eat hydrocarbon,” he said. “That stuff shouldn’t take a lot to self-remediate. If it was the globbier stuff that was entrained in water, it will be a bit more difficult.”
Johnson said that any hydrocarbons that do not make it down to groundwater will readily degrade from the bacteria. He said the bugs would also be capable of consuming hydrocarbons that reach ground water.
“Bugs are much more versatile than we are,” he said. “If it did go into the groundwater, the bugs can breathe other things, such as nitrate and sulfate, or the iron coatings on the sediments. They will use those things to degrade the hydrocarbon.”
While he has not visited this particular spill, Johnson said the chances for long-term effects from an oil spill like this are not high.
“Nobody likes to have these spills, but in the long-term, there are most likely low consequences,” he said. “I don’t know the site, but the chances of things degrading are pretty high. The (chances of this) stuff cleaning itself up pretty good should be quite high. Bugs are so good at degrading the compounds.”
Liz Thomas, an attorney for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), said the spill shows that the BLM needs to take accidents like this into consideration as it prepare its Master Leasing Plan (MLP).
“The Green River’s Labyrinth Canyon is world renowned for its scenic beauty and its outstanding river recreation opportunities for visitors and local families and businesses alike,” she said. “And, there’s no question that oil and gas wells and facilities do leak and have accidents. The spill along the Green River emphasizes the need for BLM to make smarter decisions about where to issue oil and gas leases – which is one of the purposes of the BLM’s current review of leasing areas, via the Moab Master Leasing Plan.”
SUWA also expects the BLM to follow through with pursuing penalties against S.W. Energy Corp for the accident, Thomas said.
“This spill highlights the need for more vigorous enforcement by the BLM, particularly for older wells like this one, and those with a history of problems,” she said. “SUWA expects the BLM to ensure that appropriate penalties are applied and that clean-up costs are recouped.”
When asked about potential penalties against S.W. Energy Corp for the accident, Ransel said the BLM is pleased with the clean-up efforts put forth by the company and made no mention of repercussion against the company.
“The BLM is pleased with the responsiveness of S.W. Energy to the incident and the BLM will continue to work with them through the clean-up, remediation, and reclamation phases of this incident,” she said.
Hyatt said the DWQ will be issuing a citation to the company soon.
“DWQ expects to issue a Notice of Violation to S.W. Energy in the near future,” she said. “Penalties could result, depending on their response.”
Questions remain; experts weigh in on impacts