THERMOPOLIS — At emotional hearings that drew hundreds, critics challenged regulators’ baseline assumptions that would allow the dumping of tons of pollutants above Boysen Reservoir while boosters heralded the jobs the 4,250-well Moneta Divide oil- and gas-field expansion would bring.
More than 300 residents of Fremont and Hot Springs Counties packed separate hearings in Riverton and Thermopolis to tell the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality why it should approve or reject a discharge permit for Aethon Energy Operating, LLC and Burlington Resources Oil & Gas Company, LP.
The permit would allow the dumping of 8.27 million gallons of produced water a day and up to 2,161 tons of total dissolved solids a month into Boysen tributaries. The proposed expansion of the Moneta Divide Field is also expected to generate hundreds of jobs.
Last week’s hearings were a tale of two counties as Fremont County residents applauded the project at a hearing in Riverton on Monday. But downstream in Thermopolis, where the town draws its drinking water from the Bighorn River below Boysen, Big Horn County residents were equally opposed to a development they said could threaten their health and livelihoods.
Critics questioned whether DEQ baseline pollutant measurements — first taken in 2009, 37 years after enactment of the governing Clean Water Act — were a valid starting point from which to measure growing contamination of a drinking water supply.
Project backers, meanwhile, said not only have existing discharges of “produced water” not harmed the environment, they’ve even aided ranchers and wildlife in the arid landscape east of Shoshoni.
Comments and counter comments, which DEQ will accept through July 5, drew regular applause at the hours-long public meetings. Held to solicit issues the state regulatory agency should consider, the assemblies evoked heartfelt but divergent declarations.
“We are bleeding out Wyoming men,” said project supporter Bethany Baldes, a Riverton resident whose husband left that town for work in Cheyenne. “Let’s bring our fathers, sons, husbands home.”
In Thermopolis, John Buck wondered what might happen to residents below Boysen. “You’re going to contaminate our water,” he said. “We don’t need to sell ourselves to these corporations for jobs. They want to dump this on our community and send the money to Texas.”
Baseline measurements questioned
DEQ’s draft permit would allow Aethon and Burlington to discharge produced water — a byproduct of oil and gas development — into the Alkali and Badwater creek drainages some 40 miles above the reservoir. Pollutants would be diluted in a 300- by 700-foot mixing zone there, and in the body of the reservoir, before being released from the dam into the Wind and Bighorn rivers below.
Residents of Thermopolis, which draws its municipal water from the Bighorn about 15 miles downstream of the Boysen Dam, shouldn’t be able to detect water quality changes if the permit is approved, the DEQ says.
“We feel the standard to obtain a permit has been met,” DEQ Water Quality Division Administrator Kevin Frederick said about the companies’ discharge calculations. A modeling report, prepared by Aethon consultants and supporting the proposed permit, runs 637 pages while the permit application itself is 113 pages.
The permit would ensure “there really is no change,” beyond normal background variation of historic pollutants in the Class I water below Boysen, said Bill DiRienzo DEQ’s discharge program manager. Class I waters are not supposed to be degraded below the quality that existed on the date they were designated, according to environmental laws, which in the case of the Wind River was 1979.
“Previous discharges from this facility remained essentially unchanged” since 1979, DEQ’s “statement of basis” for the permit reads. With new discharges, DEQ “shouldn’t be able to measure any difference from the past,” DiRienzo said.
DEQ set baseline “grandfathered” discharge figures from the Moneta field at 908 tons a month of total dissolved solids, DiRienzo’s slide presentation showed. That amount of pollutants “isn’t a problem because that 908 was in the river when it was designated Class I,” he said.
But several commenters challenged that baseline standard. How, one critic wondered, could DEQ justify basing its “no deviation” standard using water quality measurements from between 2010-2016, not 1979?
Water quality wasn’t measured, DiRienzo said, until former Moneta Divide operator Encana spiked its discharge in 2008-2009. It released up to 3,000 tons a month of total dissolved solids before DEQ curtailed them back to 908 tons a month.
DEQ began measuring discharges in that 2008-2009 period. Before then, “we don’t have that data,” DiRienzo said. “That may not be a good answer but that’s the way it is.”
Jobs a key issue for Fremont County
“This issue is about jobs — hundreds of families being able to put food on the table,” one person at the Riverton hearing said. Mayors of Riverton, Lander, Dubois and Shoshoni all back the project.
Moneta Divide expansion is projected to recover 18.16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 254 million barrels of oil over 65 years, the BLM wrote in announcing its draft environmental impact statement for the development. Moneta Divide could generate $71 million a year in federal royalties, $57.6 million a year in severance taxes for Wyoming, and $70 million a year in county taxes, its statement read.
“This is a blue-collar state,” said John Vincent, former Riverton mayor, in backing the permit. “This is our industry. We can fuss and worry, but it’s time to start acting.”
In Thermopolis, pipeline company owner and state Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) told the crowd that the roomy high school auditorium where they were meeting was paid for by mineral-severance taxes.
“It is about jobs, but not all about jobs,” Larsen said. Mineral taxes fund Wyoming schools to the tune of about $15,000 a student a year, he said. In 2018, the oil and gas industry paid the equivalent of $2,600 in taxes for every man, woman, and child in the state, said John Robitaille, the vice president for environment, health and safety for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
Oilfield worker Dustin Brost, a manager for Key Energy Services, said his company employs about 16 people in Riverton. “It’s very low,” he said of the workforce.
“We would like to be in that 50 range,” he told WyoFile. “We look forward to employing many people in Fremont County.”
A moribund economy has cascading effects on wellness, said Riverton resident Ruby Calvert, general manager of Wyoming PBS. Free and reduced lunches given at schools, an indicator of poverty, have risen in the last decade from 44 percent of students to 77 percent, she said.
“That’s horrible for [Fremont] county,” she said. “I think we have to have faith in the technology, the DEQ and Aethon and Burlington.”
The pollutant measures
DEQ measurements put average baseline pH below Boysen at eight, chloride at nine milligrams per liter, sulfates at 129 mg/L and total dissolved solids at 348 mg/L. New discharges under the draft permit could increase pH to nine, chloride to 12 mg/L, sulfates to 167 mg/L and total dissolved solids to 409 mg/L.
“This is going to be the cleanest water released out of this field in 60 years, Robitaille said. An angler, he’s walked and fished the entire Wind River Canyon below Boysen and wouldn’t back the project if he thought it would affect the fishing there, he said.
Produced water aids agriculture, Robitaille said. “If that water were to dry up, a lot of ranchers would dry up.”
Rancher Rob Hendry, chairman of the Natrona County Board of Commissioners and a rancher with property in the Moneta Divide Field, said produced water has benefited his family’s livestock since 1965. His father used to ask a previous operator to turn the water on, he said.
“The companies have always been good to the environment,” Hendry said.
Existing discharges benefit wildlife and “have not impacted the tributaries negatively,” Rep. Larsen said to large applause.
Moneta Divide operators sought to dispose of produced water — a separate byproduct from fracking fluids — by re-injecting it, DiRienzo told the Riverton Audience. But they could not find an underground reservoir with adequate space or into which the federal EPA would permit introduction of pollutants.
“They had to shut in a bunch of wells,” DiRienzo said.
Encana subsequently built the Neptune Water Facility, a reverse-osmosis plant that essentially uses filters to purify produced water. That outflow is blended with untreated produced water at volumes that are not to exceed DEQ limits at the outlet of Boysen Dam.
Aethon’s modeling for the draft permit predicts how much salt — a key pollutant — could be added to the reservoir “and not reduce water quality coming out of the dam.” DiRienzo said. Those calculations form the basis for the draft permit.
The model “reasonably simulates” what could occur, accounting for various fluctuations, DEQ’s Frederick said. The model, DiRienzo said, “is like predicting the weather.
“It’s not precise,” he said. “It’s as good as we can do right now.”
Operators should build more reverse-osmosis plants so all produced water discharged on the surface is clean of pollutants, some audience members said. Operators could do that if they seek to speed up development of the field, a pace that will be constrained by the DEQ permit.
Riverton Dr. Ryan Kindervater urged building treatment facilities to cleanse all the produced water. In the past, “insufficient examination of things,” associated with industrial development has led to health complications for workers, some of whom he has as patients, he said.
Health was a worry of other commenters, including one who said the project “lines the pockets of out-of-state billionaires,” while fellow residents, “for the privilege of a few new jobs … trade your health, your children’s health.”
Kindervater asked “why can’t we have our cake and eat it too?” He proposed that constructing additional treatment plants “would bring more jobs.”
That’s not practical, said Key Energy’s Brost. That idea would be “ungodly expensive,” he said after one meeting.
There are 138 discharge outlets in the Wind River and Bighorn River basins, DEQ said. Moneta Divide would have 16. The average oil and gas field in the basin produces 400 tons of total dissolved solids a month. Moneta Divide would be the fourth largest, at 2,161 tons a month, an amount one commenter said was the equivalent of 80 railroad coal cars.
“The norm is not to treat that much water,” Brost said. “The norm is to have discharge permits. If it’s not having an impact so that the DEQ’s not worried about it, why put in more plants?”
The comment deadline has been corrected — Ed.