By Angus M. Thuermer Jr. 

Analysts hit plan to dump oilfield pollutants into Wind River


July 4, 2019

Four groups are calling for Wyoming’s DEQ to reject Aethon Energy’s application to dump millions of gallons and thousands of tons of oil- and gas-field pollutants above Boysen Reservoir in a scathing scientific review of the company’s proposal.

In the first publicly released independent review of a 637-page modeling report and 113-page application for a “produced water” discharge permit, consultants hired by four conservation groups let loose on the science in Aethon studies describing methods and results as “misleading,” “very odd,” “questionable and unrealistic,” “surprising,” and “unwarranted and wrong,” among other things.

Aetheon and Burlington Resources seek permission from the BLM to expand the Moneta Divide oil and gas field by 4,250 wells and need a DEQ permit to discharge up to 2,161 tons a month of total dissolved solids at a rate of 8.27 million gallons a day. The effluent from oil and gas wells would flow through Alkali and Badwater creeks, into Boysen Reservoir in Boysen State Park and into the federally protected Class I flows of the Wind River — the source of Thermopolis’ drinking water.

“The draft permit violates the Clean Water Act, the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act, and the Department [of Environmental Quality’s] rules and regulations implementing those laws,” the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Powder River Basin Resource Council, National Audubon Society and Natural Resource Defense Council wrote the DEQ. “The discharge of produced water from this facility has damaged and continues to damage surface waters of the state and threatens downstream communities with undisclosed health risks,” reads the groups’ cover letter, signed by representatives in Lander, Sheridan, Washington, D.C. and Livermore, Colorado.

They urged the state regulatory agency to encourage the Texas-based energy company “to consider other, less environmental damaging alternatives to the discharge.” In the meantime, “the permit should be denied,” the letter reads.

Yet in the arid West, new water can be valuable, if it is properly treated. “Water resources in the West are a topic of great importance and these issues are currently being studie[d] by a multitude of governmental agencies and research institutes,” wrote Peter Jones, a consulting geochemist from Houston, Texas. Hereviewed the Aethon proposal and made the seven-page review available to WyoFile.

“As planned, the Moneta Divide development will be on the forefront of technology and may well be a model for how produced water may be converted into a valuable resource,” he wrote

DEQ originally proposed a 30-day comment period for the complex application and draft permit, but ran into stiff opposition to the timeline from downstream residents. The agency agreed to a 79-day extension that called for comments by July 5.

Opposition and criticism of the plan, however, has not been universal. In Fremont County, where much of the proposed drilling would take place, officials and residents largely applauded the proposed expansion, touting expected new employment and tax receipts.

The 4,250-well project is proposed on 327,645 acres of public, state and private lands near Lysite, between Shoshoni and Casper. The area is already home to more than 800 wells. New development is projected to produce about 18.16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 254 million barrels of oil over 65 years, the BLM wrote in a statement.

Development could bring $71 million a year in federal royalties, $57.6 million a year in Wyoming severance taxes, and $70 million a year in county ad valorem taxes, the statement read. Comments on the separate BLM plan are due July 18.

DEQ officials have said the discharged pollutants will be diluted in the 20-mile by five-mile Boysen Reservoir to the point “they would be lost in the normal background fluctuation,” of similar elements when released into the Wind and Bighorn rivers below.

DEQ’s comment extension enabled the conservation groups to engage consultants and WyoFile has received copies of comments from three PhDs, two specialists with masters degrees and a Wyoming Trout Unlimited conservation committee.

While the independent water quality and environmental specialists reviewed the companies’ application and DEQ’s draft permit — a renewal of an existing permit — three of the groups had asked state regulators to hold up the process until the company “provides essential water quality information required by the agency’s rules.” That request has apparently been rejected.

A DEQ spokesman said that June 19 letter would be addressed with all the other comments submitted by July 5 and resolved as the agency works through the Aethon application. “We wouldn’t have a response to that, not at this time,” Keith Guille told WyoFile last month.

The DEQ received 428 comments, Guille wrote WyoFile on Monday. Some, received by mail, are still being processed so the collection has not yet been released.

“It will take some time to review and respond to all of the comments,” Guille wrote. “Once that is done, a decision will be issued. We have no specific date.”

WyoFile did not receive a response to several requests to Texas-based Aethon for comment.

Some of the harshest criticism of the permit and supporting modeling study came from Jean Marie Boyer, PhD, PE, of Hydros Consulting Inc. based in Boulder, Colorado. In 27 pages, she repeatedly bashed the work by Aethon consultants ERM, which describes itself as “a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk, social consulting services and sustainability related services.”

Boyer took aim at ERMs model developed to predict what would happen to the discharged pollutants. “Based on how the model was developed and the results, the reservoir model cannot be used for projections or decision making,” she wrote.

“In addition, even if the model adequately simulated water quality, the methods used to determine compliance are inadequate, sometimes wrong, and several assumptions were made to show favorable results,” her criticism reads. The DEQ has written that the model was designed to ensure compliance with water-quality standards and to maintain existing quality in the Wind River below Boysen Reservoir.

“Unfortunately,” Boyer wrote, “this is not a true statement.” The analysis, methods and findings to determine that Aethon and Burlington would meet discharge permit requirements “are incorrect,” her memo reads.

During five years of data collection Aethon spent only one day — in April 2017 — collecting information from Boysen tributaries, she said, calling that “surprising.” Aethon’s analysis “ignored” evaporation from Boysen, a process that tends to increase concentrations of pollutants. Aethon’s’ consultant ERM also mischaracterized how pollutants would flow into and through the reservoir — “a serious flaw,” she wrote

Instead of dissipating in a 300- by 700-foot mixing zone as modeled by developers, pollutants could flow along the bottom of the reservoir, Boyer’s memo says. She wrote of a “very serious problem” in not differentiating between what happens at various depths in the reservoir, a problem that led to “incorrect and very misleading comparisons.”

The analysis “concealed” information regarding the complete depth of the reservoir, Boyer wrote. “…[C]utting off the elevations in the figures leads the reader to assume that the reservoir is typically well-mixed [in] summer and does not stratify or have much vertical variation.”

Another of the conservation group’s consultants, Mike Wireman of Granite Ridge Groundwater in Boulder, Colorado, agreed. He called for an analysis of the “fate and transport” of all pollutants into Boysen Reservoir “as these inflows mix with and disperse within the reservoir.” He made his statements in a six-page critique for the conservation groups.

Boyer further criticized ERM for excluding 300 water-quality data points from their proposal with no justifying discussion of the omission. Winter conditions, “critical for this analysis,” also weren’t evaluated, a shortcoming she called “unwarranted and wrong.”

Other methods employed by developers “makes it easier to show compliance” with environmental rules, the criticism states.

DEQ should require “an independent third-party review that does not entirely depend upon the operator’s own analyses” before approving the discharge permit, Wyoming Trout Unlimited wrote the state agency.

“…[W]ater must be fully treated prior to any discharge, with treated waters consisting of a quality level that does not harm fish, wildlife, the surrounding aquatic and riparian communities, and the general public which live and recreate in the discharge areas,” council representatives wrote. Wyoming Game and Fish has found that numerous species of game and many sensitive fish exist in the Badwater and Alkali areas, the representatives wrote.

Also, Sauger, an “important sport fish” native to many drainages in the Wind River system, breed and rear in Badwater Bay, the mixing zone for pollutants, the representatives wrote. They hold “a high conservation value,” leading the anglers to express “strong concerns about the impacts increased levels of produced water discharge will have on these critical fish habitats.”

DEQ is supposed to ensure that discharges don’t contain toxic materials, do not damage land or vegetation, minimize erosion, and do not form sludge or degrade the aesthetics or habitat according to the council.

“We believe all of the above has occurred in the past operations in the Moneta Divide planning area, is occurring at some levels currently, and has the potential to significantly increase under the current permit renewal process DEQ is proposing,” the letter signed by Cole Sherard, chairman of the Wyoming council and Kathy Buchner, chairwoman of the council’s conservation committee reads, “…therefore, the renewal of this permit should not be approved.”

Two PhDs with ties to the University of Wyoming agreed as they outlined impacts to aquatic life in Alkali and Badwater creeks. Harold Bergman, UW professor emeritus and former UW professor Joseph Meyer, now with Applied Limnology Professionals LLC in Golden, Colorado, saw deficiencies in the planned discharges.

“Adverse effects on fish and aquatic invertebrates in the creeks “would be expected if untreated produced waters are not adequately diluted with good-quality water,” they wrote in a 14-page memo to the conservation groups.

TU is “highly confident” a creek survey “would show existing (and likely future) violations of Wyoming water quality standards as well as lack of support of designated uses for aquatic life.”

Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the state are responsible for preserving such aquatic life in the creeks, conservationists say.

Aethon’s untreated produced water would have to be diluted “at least 10-fold to avoid decreasing short-term survival of aquatic organisms,” the two wrote. Preserving water quality in the creeks and Badwater Bay “might necessitate even greater dilution of the untreated production water,” than currently planned, TU wrote.

Conservation consultant Wireman also wrote that DEQ must consider any second- or third-order chemical reactions that might occur in the creeks.

Discharged water may contain “Harmful radionuclides” that are not being accounted for, consulting geochemist Jones wrote the DEQ. He supported some of the consultant’s studies, writing “the work in assessing environmental impact has been carefully done and has a built-in margin of safety, since it is all but certain that a significant portion of the increased water flow will be taken up by infiltration into the soil and shallow alluvium.”

But he raised a caution flag regarding radionuclides, which emit rays or high-speed particles that can alter DNA.

“The hydraulic fracturing and extraction process actually concentrates these materials … technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials,” he wrote. “The drastic variation in the concentration of harmful components in the untreated water is a major risk factor in the proposed action.”

The amount of TENORMs varies dramatically in an oil- or gas-field, he wrote, but Aethon studies do not do the topic justice.

“Testing … has not been provided for as part of the project compliance,” Jones wrote. “Additional health safety measures beyond those specified in the renewal permit should be undertaken.”

Conservation consultant Wireman also worried about flowback water — used in drilling and fracking and often containing deleterious elements — and whether all of it would be excluded from less-toxic produced water.

Much of the Moneta Divide worries center on preservation of the Wind River downstream of Boysen Reservoir as a Class I waterway. Under the federal Clean Water Act, it can’t be degraded.

DEQ and Aetheon collected water quality measurements from below the dam and have used those as a baseline from which to measure degradation. But that baseline may not be accurate because the samples were collected starting in 2010 and the river earned protection in 1979, Wireman wrote.

“Reportedly data does exist from the 1979 period and should have been used,” he wrote. Conservation consultant Boyer backed that assertion.

“WDEQ should use this new permit application to bring the facility into compliance by requiring effluent standards aimed at protecting designated uses in Alkali Creek, Badwater Creek, Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River and stop historical loading,” he wrote. “WDEQ should require an economic analysis to evaluate the feasibility of treating 100% of the produced water discharge.”

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