Utah Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil, Gas and Mining staff members appeared before the department’s board to discuss solutions to the cleanup at the Montezuma Waste Disposal Facility. Pictured are Bart Kettle (left), Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining petroleum field operations manager; Thomas Kessinger, an attorney with the Utah Attorney General’s Office for the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (center); and Division of Oil, Gas and Mining Geologist Ammon McDonald (right). [Photo courtesy of the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining]

Could waste from a disposal site in San Juan County be used as road salt by the state?

The idea was one of several solutions discussed at a hearing in Salt Lake City to review a 15-year plan for the cleanup efforts at the Montezuma Waste Disposal Facility.

A salt solution in a pit at the facility does not currently pose a risk to contaminating the groundwater in the region, a state geologist said, but indicated that the brine has the potential to do so, and said it has some landowners in the area concerned.

Montezuma Well Services, Inc., operates the brine disposal facility in a sparsely populated and remote area about 10 miles east of Bluff. The facility has one remedial pit, one active pit, one inactive pit, six remediated land cells and 11 active land cells.

The facility has “a lengthy history” with the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, said Thomas Kessinger, an attorney with the Utah Attorney General’s Office. Cleanup of the site has been an ongoing issue for more than a decade.

Kessinger represented the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining during the hearing before members of the Board of Oil, Gas and Mining in October. Kessinger, the division and Montezuma Well Services asked the board to remand oversight back into the hands of the division moving forward into 2019. With a board order, the division had filed a notice in 2009 for the division to take control of the cleanup of the facility.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the board voted and unanimously approved to remand oversight back to the division, with the stipulation that a formal risk assessment of the entire facility be undertaken with the requirements of the Department of Environmental Quality.

“I think we’ve got a path forward here,” said board member Ruland Gill Jr.

Gill said all agencies involved with the facility would like to see Montezuma Well Services “stay in business, get this done and not really be punitive with this (cleanup).”

Seated beside Kessinger at the table were Bart Kettle, the division’s petroleum field operations manager, and Ammon McDonald, the division’s geologist and expert on groundwater. Across the room, Melvin Capitan, a manager at Montezuma Well Services, sat at another table. Discussion largely centered on what to do with the salt in Pit C. A third-party estimate put the cost of the cleanup at the facility at $2.7 million. The board, division and Montezuma discussed other possible alternatives that would bring the cost down.

“C-Pit, the one you were talking about, I’m working on that,” Capitan told the board. “I’m working with the road department with the state, and Colorado, determining if they need salt for the road. I’m looking at chemistry from the different entity of the laboratories, asking them what do the road departments need that’s in sampling the salt? What do they require? What are they looking for? What is the specific? … That is my plan.”

Board member Susan Davis asked about the hazards posed by the salt.

“I mean I understand it’s very expensive to remove it, but what are the hazards of it, why does it have to be removed?” she said.

McDonald answered by saying that the salt “doesn’t necessarily have to be removed.”

“Probably the first thing that would need to be done … they need to go in and characterize what the salt is. If it’s sodium chloride, its not a huge environmental concern unless it gets into the groundwater. It is stable and contained currently. The third-party estimate, one of the reasons it is probably so high, is it is a worst-case scenario if they had to dig all that stuff up and haul it and since this is such a remote location the haulage fees would be relatively high and the disposal cost.”

“This is a state with extensive salt flats that nobody worries about, why are we concerned about this salt?” Davis said.

“It just has the potential to get into groundwater, and if it gets into groundwater, the groundwater would no longer be usable,” McDonald said. “But the groundwater at this site isn’t in any imminent threat but some land owners and some people are looking for that salt to be removed and so that is a potential that may have to be addressed.”

“What are we going to do with the C-Pit?” Capitan said to the board. “There were two options. Taking it down to El Paso to land disposal, or taking it to Tooele — they have a place for where it can be disposed of. These are numbers ($2.7 million) they gave for trucks, hauling it and permitting it to get it on the road. We can do that. We have trucks, we have belly dumps. We have equipment to do that. This $2.7 million is an outrageous price to me.”

Capitan said Montezuma Well Services can “probably do it under $500,000 if we do it on our own.”

McDonald, speaking as the state’s expert on groundwater, said the expected location of water beneath the facility is 220-250 feet below the surface. He came to that conclusion by using measurements from “a SITLA well from 1960 where they measured water elevation of 110 feet of water.” That well is located 3 miles west of the facility, McDonald said.

“Mr. McDonald, based on your experience, does the facility present an imminent threat to groundwater?” Kettle asked.

“Based on where groundwater is expected to be and where it is known to occur, it is, uh, not an imminent threat to the groundwater,” McDonald said.

“The majority of those costs ($2.7 million) relate to salt left over from highly saline-produced water,” Kessinger said. “The division will work with Montezuma to post full-cost bonding and complete remediation through the use of conditions of approval, and the division’s permit renewal process.”

“The salt is not very hazardous or a hazardous thing because we live with salt in that area along the San Juan River from all the oil and gas activity going on in the greater oilfield area,” Capitan said. “It’s been there for the last 60 years … we’ve been living, eating, drinking, sleeping with it for 60 years. My health has been OK.”

Salt waste not a threat to groundwater, expert says

“This is a state with extensive salt flats that nobody worries about, why are we concerned about this salt?”