The reflection of a gas drilling rig in a mud puddle near Parachute Creek on a rainy Saturday, April 9, 2011. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

The state’s Water Quality Control Division says a division of Williams natural gas company failed to take measures at a gas field construction site to keep dirt and mud from running down steep hills into a tributary of Parachute Creek, which flows into the Colorado River in Parachute.

On Nov. 1, 2010, state inspectors witnessed “erosion and sediment discharge from the disturbed area” of a Williams construction site on the Roan Plateau in Garfield County.

They found Williams “failed to prepare and maintain a complete and accurate stormwater management plan for the project.” The project included building a road and installing a gas pipeline.

Such a plan is required, state inspectors said, “to identify all potential sources of pollution” that could affect stormwater runoff and select “best management practices” to address them.

They found Williams failed to adequately build water bars or did not properly place hay bales and straw waddles to effectively absorb sediment flowing in the muddy water running from the site.

“What was concerning to the department primarily with this project is there were a lot of disturbed areas where the dirt had been up torn up with heavy equipment,” said Scott Klarich, manager of the state’s Water Quality Control Division’s enforcement unit, but Williams failed to take steps to prevent runoff or conduct required inspections after snow and rainstorms.

The site included a 50-foot-wide swath of disturbed dirt running for almost a mile across hills with no erosion control measures in place, inspectors said.

“Certainly on a site where you have not implemented any control measures to keep your sediment on your site, the likelihood of that off-site sediment transport, and environmental impacts, is greatly increased,” Klarich said.

Williams’ alleged failure to prevent muddy runoff is not an isolated incident in the gas fields. Eight stormwater violation cases are active with oil and gas companies working in Garfield County.

The Antero Resources Pipeline Corporation was recently handed a $148,000 penalty after the state inspected a pipeline project between Rifle and Silt in 2007. And the Petroleum Development Corp. paid $161,000 after inspectors found stormwater violations in 2008 on a road project 10 miles north of Parachute.

“Some of the regulated community isn’t quite getting the message yet and needs to do a better job of implementing stormwater controls,” Klarich said.

And mud running off a construction site can have negative environmental effects.

“Increased loading of that sediment by man-made or preventable activities just suffocates the bottom of a relatively sensitive creek or river bed, where very specific aquatic plants and animals live that aren’t designed to live in mud, per se,” Klarich said.

On March 16, the state’s water quality division served Williams Production RMT Company LLC with a combination notice of violation and cease and desist order (below).

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Williams has until April 16 to respond and Klarich said under the state enforcement process, a violation notice and a cease and desist order represents a significant step.

“Once it gets to this level of action, it is a serious matter,” Klarich said.

Williams spokeswoman Donna Gray said she couldn’t comment because the case is under investigation.

Williams, which is a highly profitable company, does not have to stop drilling operations near Parachute Creek, but it does have to cease allowing runoff to occur in violation of its stormwater permit.

Fines of up to $10,000 a day can be levied against Williams, the nation’s 10th-largest natural gas producer.

A gas rig in the Parachute Creek watershed. Large bare walls of dirt are a common site on the sides of rig platforms. Credit: BGS

The state claims Williams violated its 2007 stormwater permit for a “planned disturbance” on 116 acres of land in Garfield County north of Parachute.

The permit gives Williams the right to discharge stormwater to Parachute Creek and the Colorado River, but it must minimize erosion and reduce runoff.

Williams started work under on June 28, 2008. On Nov. 1, 2010, inspectors visited the construction area and found “a lot of disturbed areas at the site that didn’t have adequate or proper” mitigation measures in place, Klarich said.

Inspectors found a high wall of bare dirt beneath which Williams had placed only a single row of straw wattles – straw wrapped in mesh tubes – at the base of a 50 percent grade. Wattles are supposed to be placed in 10-foot intervals on the face of a steep dirt face.

At another part, areas of open dirt ran across steep hillsides with no protective measures in place, inspectors said, allowing sediment to fill the tributary.

Below that, a bare swath of dirt 50-feet wide and a third of a mile long over steep hills had no water bars in place.

State inspectors also found Williams’ personnel had not been preparing adequate inspection reports of its stormwater measures.

The state’s notice of alleged violation requires Williams to take immediate actions to limit runoff and improve inspections.

Klarich said he doesn’t think anything has yet changed on the Williams construction site since the violation notice was issued on March 16.

“We have had discussions with Williams about their ability to implement site improvements, but it is still winter up there,” Klarich said.

But he said it is important for Williams to address the issues before spring runoff comes to the Roan Plateau.

Parachute Creek, on a rainy day, about eight miles above its confluence with the Colorado River. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

The army of splattered white work trucks, now a heavy presence on I-70, are evidence of the long dirt roads that are typical of the gas patch. And from public roads, it is easy to see drilling sites with high walls of dirt, often with only token measures in place to prevent runoff.

But on some drill sites, practices like the use of “geo-textiles” over carefully shaped walls of dirt are in place to limit runoff.

“There is no feasible way to contain and control all sediment transport from a project,” Klarich said. “But we certainly hope that through proper implementation of best management practices and a thought-out development of a stormwater management plan, you are going to significantly decrease those to where the the measurable effects of that sediment transport is very minimal.”

There are different levels of care in the gas fields. Here, a berm is being covered to reduce erosion.

Klarich said the state water quality control division inspects only about 10 percent of construction sites in the gas fields that have stormwater permits, and it doesn’t review companies’ stormwater plans before the permits are issued.

As a result, the oil and gas companies are initially on their own to adhere to state law and best practices when it comes to managing stormwater.

“We can’t just rely on the limited resources offered to the government,” he said. “Citizens and citizens’ groups should be vigilant and actively paying attention to what is happening in their community as well.”

That can be difficult in the Parachute Creek drainage however. Most drilling sites in the side canyons and the top of the small valley are behind gated entryways where the public is not allowed to pass.

A drilling site south of the Colorado River. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

A broadcast version of story also aired on Aspen Public Radio on Monday, April 11, 2011.

Brent Gardner-Smith

Brent Gardner-Smith, the founder of Aspen Journalism, and who served as AJ’s executive director until August 2021 and as editor from 2011-2020, is the news director at Aspen Public Radio. He's also been...