Environmental regulators are surveying two polluted creeks near the Moneta Divide oil and gas field to assess whether their protective classifications are appropriate or should be modified, possibly reducing water-quality standards.
The two-year study, which began last fall, could, alternatively, lead the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to ask oilfield operators to reduce releases of pollutants so Alkali and Badwater creeks northeast of Shoshoni meet existing environmental standards.
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The Texas company Aethon, which seeks to increase discharges by more than ten-fold in a 4,250-well expansion of the 800-well field, will assist the DEQ in the study, according to the study plan. The aim of “Sampling and Analysis Plan — Badwater Creek” (attached below) is to document existing conditions and levels of pollution.
Laws and regulations protect Badwater Creek flows for drinking, fish, other aquatic life, recreation, industry, wildlife, agriculture and scenic values. Protections are less stringent for Alkali Creek; drinking water and fish are not on its list of values.
It’s widely acknowledged that water in the two creeks is tainted. Drilling in the Moneta Divide field, originally known as Frenchie Draw, has been ongoing since the 1960s. In expanding the field, which could bring $71 million a year in federal royalties and $127 million annually in state and local taxes, Aethon Energy and Burlington Resources seek to pour up to 8.27 million gallons of tainted “produced water” onto the landscape every day.
At issue in the ongoing study is the protective classification of the two affected creeks, whose waters flow into Boysen Reservoir. That water body feeds into the Wind Rivers, a class 1 waterway with stringent water-quality protections. The Wind become the Bighorn River and is the source of drinking water for the town of Thermopolis.
“We have to at least protect what’s there,” said Lyndsay Patterson, a coordinator for the DEQ’s surface water quality program. “The other component is what’s attainable,” she said, and whether a cleanup is possible or financially worthwhile.
“There’s an economic factor … that could be used” in the decision, she told WyoFile.
Heavy black slime
“Produced water” is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction that is often injected underground to geologic layers isolated from drinking water. Some produced water is treated, blended with untreated flows, and released on the surface. The proposed expansion plan would allow for the new, larger surface discharges because developers haven’t found adequate underground injection options.
If the study determines current water quality standards are appropriate, the agency will create “scientifically defensible water quality criteria” to protect the creeks, according to the current sampling and analysis plan. In the alternative, DEQ could decide to “modify the designated uses” of the creeks and downgrade their water quality standards.
The DEQ released the plan — labeled a draft but described as an evolving document — following a records request by the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Powder River Basin Resource Council. Photographs and at least one video were part of the release.
Representatives of the conservation groups said the DEQ survey is important. They question why Aethon and its consultants are involved.
“Aethon has a vested interest here,” said Jill Morrison, PRBC executive director. The company will discharge “as much produced water as cheaply as possible,” she said.
WyoFile has asked Aethon repeatedly for comment on the Moneta Divide Field and the expansion plans, including last week, but has received no response from the Dallas-based private investment company.
A DEQ map shows 19 “outfall” sites where produced water is pumped out onto the ground. Most of them are uphill of Alkali Creek, into which the water flows.
Ongoing operations have “severely impacted” Alkali Creek, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management wrote in a draft analysis of oilfield expansion. The conservation groups believe operations already violate existing laws, they wrote in a complaint to the DEQ.
“Below the discharge there is no aquatic life,” Morrison said of Alkali Creek. “There is a heavy black slime [that was] visible when I was out in the field. All of those things are things that are not supposed to occur.”
Fox guarding the henhouse?
Aethon is only responsible for providing samples from its outfalls, along with water temperatures and flow rates, DEQ spokesman Keith Guille told WyoFile. The company performs at least some of those tasks as ongoing permit requirements. Under the study, Game and Fish Department and DEQ personnel are collecting samples from 14 sites along the creeks, he said.
Wyoming Outdoor Council Senior Conservation Advocate Dan Heilig said the group hopes the data collected will be “accurate, reliable and collected in a scientific manner.”
“What we worry about is the involvement of Aethon,” he said, and the company having “undue influence over the process.”
“The [DEQ] has competent, capable technicians on staff,” he said. “Any special tasks … I would feel better if DEQ employed their own contractors and billed Aethon.”
Guille rejected suggestions that DEQ wouldn’t do its job.
“We work for the State of Wyoming,” he said. “We work for the people of Wyoming. Our agency takes that very seriously. Our staff is very capable. We stand behind their work.”
The two-year study of the creeks focuses on chloride, essentially salty water. Aethon and Burlington’s existing permit allows the operators to dump 787,500 gallons daily, according to calculations made by WyoFile from DEQ data.
The proposed new limit of 8.27 million daily gallons would include more than 1,000 tons a month each of sodium and sulfate, according to the proposal.
Today Badwater Creek’s designation as a coldwater fishery limits chloride levels to 230 milligrams a liter, a limit set in 1990. The federal government sets an aesthetic guideline of 250 mg/L, for drinking water, above which it can taste salty. But discharges into Badwater range between 2,000 and 3,000 mg/L, the DEQ wrote in a 2018 document.
Approximately a year ago DEQ sought to change rules to exempt the creek from the 230 mg/L limit. “An in-stream standard of 230 mg/L cannot be attained,” DEQ wrote in a “statement of principle reasons” when it sought to adopt new, more permissive chloride standards.
The 230 mg/L rule for Badwater Creek that Wyoming adopted in 1990 grandfathered existing discharges from Moneta Divide Field as long as they were put to beneficial use by local landowners. Conservationists contend that hasn’t happened. At least one rancher has said it has.
When the DEQ sought to change the limits in an application before the Environmental Quality Council, an appointed citizen body overseeing the agency, it described its reasoning in a “use attainability analysis.” Fish, it said, had adapted to the higher chloride levels.
“The limited fishery that may at times exist in the subject reach of Badwater Creek can be considered tolerant to chloride concentrations above 2000 mg/L,” the agency wrote, “since those are the conditions that have prevailed in the stream since the 1960’s.”
DEQ ultimately pulled its request to downgrade the creek because of objections by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to reporting by the Casper Star-Tribune. Wyoming DEQ operates under EPA regulations and enforces federal environmental laws.
Wyoming regulators said at the time their proposed new limit of 2,000 mg/L wouldn’t have degraded the creek, but would have improved water quality there, the newspaper reported.
The proposed oilfield expansion prompted the new two-year study of the creeks, according to a study outline. The study may influence revisions Aethon seeks as it renews its discharge permit.
“We want to make sure the standards we have are appropriate,” Patterson said. “We have to protect what’s there and what’s potentially there without anthropogenic influences … what’s attainable.”
Powder River’s Morrison worries industry and political pressure will favor degradation of the creeks. “The state is not protecting our streams, our rivers, our reservoirs,” she said.
“Typically what DEQ has done in the past is instead of cleaning it up [they say] ‘let’s downgrade the stream.’ They cater to the industry and put the burden on the public … to force industry to do the cleanup.
“What they should be about is preventing the problem in the first place,” she said. “They’ve definitely failed in Alkali and that needs to be cleaned up.”
The DEQ is dedicated to facts, Guille said. “Any insinuation that were not behind the regulations, this is not true,” he said. “We let science and the data speak.”