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In Wake Of Colo. Floods, A Scramble To Clean Up Spilled Oil

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The heavy floodwaters in Colorado this month caused more than 37,000 gallons of oil to spill into or near rivers, and the state's oil and gas industry is rushing to fix equipment damaged during the storm. It comes at a time when there's growing public concern about the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing in the state.

In recent years, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies have enabled more oil and gas production along Colorado's Eastern Plains. The boom has led to thousands of well sites across the state. As heavy rain entered the forecast, operators shut off wells and equipment in flood-prone areas — and then water rose.

"So as the water crested there was a tremendous amount of I think earth moved in some cases to where the foundations to some of these tanks actually washed out underneath them," says Dan Kelly, vice president of Noble Energy's operations in the area.

The company reported four spills, amounting to almost 9,000 gallons of oil. In some instances the floodwaters quickly swept the oil downstream. In others, the company had to sop up the spilled oil or use vacuum trucks. Kelly says his company is still trying to gain access to a few sites.

"Due to the water, due to the currents, due to some of the other issues with potential pollutants — bacteria and some of the things we're very concerned with — we have not aggressively pursued trying to get into some that still have risk," he says.

The bacteria he's referring to — from raw sewage and animal excrement from feed lots — have also spilled into floodwaters. Overall, state officials are warning people to stay away from the water. But not everyone can make that choice.

Riding on horseback, one of the few ways to get around near the South Platte River, rancher Kody Lostroh searches downstream from one oil spill area for a cow he lost in the floods.

"There's a ton of junk in the water right now," he says. "It's just another thing we have to deal with."

In total, state officials are tracking 12 of what they call "notable" oil releases in the region. Colorado's oil and gas regulatory body has multiple teams in the field assessing the affects of floodwaters. Energy companies themselves are conducting aerial surveys of their equipment.

Some sites remain unreachable by land because roads are too muddy or have been destroyed. Overall, state officials estimate about 1,300 wells remain shut down.

"For that region, that represents about 14 percent of the oil production," says Tisha Schuller, the CEO of the trade group Colorado Oil and Gas Association. "So it's a significant percent that's not operating right now."

Schuller says in some places it could take months for repairs and testing to happen. There are also public concerns about potential fracking wastewater or chemicals that may have been swept into the floodwaters.

"To the best of our knowledge there were no pits in the flooded areas," she says. "And so we're confident that the order of magnitude of impacts that we've seen so far, which are relatively minor, is what we'll see as the floodwaters continue to recede."

The recent spills are moving environmental and advocacy groups to call on state and industry officials to revisit the rules governing where oil and gas drilling can take place in flood plains.

"The state of Colorado and the oil and gas industry has made a terrible mistake," says Gary Wockner of the environmental group Clean Water Action. "If there's any silver lining here, it's [that] we have the opportunity to change that as we move forward and create much better regulations that would protect the public, and the environment, and of course our water source as we move forward."

Other public discussions on oil and gas development along the Front Range are expected to develop this fall. That's when voters in five Colorado communities will weigh in on ballot measures that seek to limit or ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing.

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