Aethon Energy violated environmental regulations as it dumped Moneta Divide oilfield wastewater into Fremont County creeks above Boysen Reservoir, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality asserts in a letter.
DEQ inspectors found “black sediment deposits” and foam in Alkali and Badwater creeks and “free oil” at a discharge point above them, the environmental agency wrote in a Dec. 17, 2019 letter of violation to an Aethon manager. Inspectors identified the black muck, which taints more than 7 miles of Badwater Creek, as iron sulfide.
Inspectors did not find similar deposits elsewhere in the Badwater Creek drainage east of Shoshoni, the letter states. DEQ documented the violations during the 2019 sampling season, the letter states.
Aethon’s permit, which the Dallas investment company is seeking to renew, prohibits “significant aesthetic degradation.” The company is also prohibited from compromising aquatic habitat, plant life, wildlife and water used for drinking, agriculture or industry.
Data used to document the violations also indicate excessive chloride, temperature changes, dissolved oxygen problems and turbidity in Badwater Creek, the agency wrote. Inspectors also identified volatile organic compounds in discharges but not farther downstream in creeks. One black rock had “a strong sewage odor,” according to an Aethon consultant.
DEQ is attempting to resolve the violations “through conference and conciliation,” the violation letter reads.
“Aethon is addressing the matter with the WDEQ and will continue to operate in compliance with the existing and future WDEQ permits for Moneta Divide,” Stefanie Scruggs, a company vice president, wrote WyoFile in an email.
Fix the pollution problem first
The violation letter surfaced as Aethon sought to renew its discharge permit and expand the volume of produced water it’s allowed to discharge. But regulations prohibit that renewal as long as Aethon is not meeting limits in its existing authorization, said Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate with the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
His group obtained the violation letter and other documents and photographs through a records request and shared them with WyoFile. WOC, along with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society are working together on the Moneta Divide issue.
“The letter of violation alleges there is a possibility of permit violations, which, if not resolved, would prevent the department from taking action to renew the permit,” Heilig said.
DEQ regulations require that permits be renewed only if “the permittee is in compliance or substantially in compliance” with the existing permit. They also say that existing discharge must comply with “effluent standards and compliance schedules, water quality standards,” and other requirements.
Aethon is not meeting these current protective standards, said Jill Morrison, executive director of the PRBC.
DEQ in January rejected Aethon’s original request to increase the amount of pollutants it releases in produced wastewater from gas- and oilfield wells above Boysen, the source of drinking water for the town of Thermopolis. The move came following a public outcry, two public meetings and numerous letters complaining about the plan. DEQ also said a defunct wastewater treatment plant made the need for a larger permit moot.
Aethon and Burlington Resources are seeking to expand the field from roughly 800 to 4,250 wells. Instead of allowing a discharge increase to 8.27 million gallons a day and more than 1,000 tons a month each of sodium and sulfate, state regulators would keep flows at existing levels — about 2 million gallons a day. The revised permit renewal, which is pending approval, would require oilfield operators to reduce some elements in the wastewater.
Aethon wrote DEQ that it will take several steps to resolve the issues raised in the December letter of violation. It will increase monitoring and will skim oil from wastewater pits when it approaches 25% of the surface, Aethon Regulatory and HSE Manager Andrea Taylor wrote the DEQ Jan. 16.
The company will look for oil below discharge points and will survey Alkali Creek every quarter to verify there’s no oil in it, she wrote. It proposed several options to address the black sediment deposits, characterized by one conservationist as a “heavy black slime.” The company also will try to stop the formation of foam, Taylor wrote.
The actions will take place through the fourth quarter of 2021, almost two years from now. The new draft permit renewal calls for Aethon to meet chloride limits by 2024.
Meantime the DEQ is considering whether the current protective classification for Badwater Creek should be lowered.
“Aethon wants to downgrade Badwater Creek so they can put in more pollution,” Morrison said. The existing standard is appropriate, she said. “Any level [of pollution] higher than that would have deleterious effects.”
“This permit needs to be more restrictive to meet the uses in these streams,” Morrison said. The new proposed renewed permit would give Aethon four years to come into compliance with some parameters. “That’s not good,” Morrison said.
Today is the deadline for commenting on the new draft permit renewal for Aethon discharges. The DEQ extended the original permit renewal commend deadline and has twice rejected conservation groups’ request to extend the new draft’s deadline.
‘Greasy’ black sediment
“It’s greasy,” Morrison said of the black sediment deposits. There’s no requirement in the draft permit that would force Aethon to make the black-sediment creeks the same color as neighboring waterways.
Morrison said that’s a problem. “It should be cleaned up,” she said.
“DEQ under their statutory requirements is supposed to be protecting the air, land and water quality,” she said. “They’ve been failing.”
WOC wants remediation, Heilig said. “We’re going to ask the DEQ to develop a cleanup plan for these two tributaries,” he said. “They have been treated as dumping-grounds for decades. This practice must come to an end as quickly as possible.”
DEQ officials last week were unable to respond to questions from WyoFile.
DEQ’s probe of Aethon discharges came after WOC and PRBRC asserted that Aethon wasn’t meeting conditions of its permit. Among other things, PRBRC found federal Environmental Protection Agency data that showed violations of effluent limits downstream of the field.
Heilig questioned the DEQ’s methods. In 2018, the agency inspected the gas- and oilfield and documented no compliance issues.
“Less than a year later DEQ returns to the Moneta Divide Field to conduct further investigations and finds a host of problems — alleged violations,” he said. “It doesn’t seem within the realm [of possibilities] these violations arose in the intervening 12-month period.”