Two conservation groups allege that existing flows of produced water from the Moneta Divide oil and gas field violate federal and state environmental laws, this amid a contentious public debate over the proposed permitting of additional discharges.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council and Powder River Basin Resource Council Thursday asked the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality for an investigation into what they say is the discharge of a million gallons a day into Alkali and Badwater creeks. The two ephemeral waterways in Fremont County drain into Boysen Reservoir which, in turn, flows into the protected Class I Wind River, the source of drinking and agricultural water downstream.
In a five-page letter, the two groups wrote of “multiple apparent violations of the Clean Water Act, the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act and their implementing regulations.” The groups’ argument hinges on untreated and/or partially treated water discharged from Aethon Energy Company’s Moneta Divide Oil and Natural Gas Field east of Shoshoni, which, they wrote, “may not be of good enough quality for wildlife or livestock use” — a standard required by federal and state regulations.
Further, discharge of approximately a million gallons a day onto the landscape “has caused and continues to cause violations of Wyoming surface water quality standards,” the letter alleges.
The groups went on to request “a prompt investigation of the alleged violations,” wrote Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate for WOC and Jill Morrison, executive director of PRBRC.
“We will review their complaint and make a determination later,” DEQ spokesman Keith Guille wrote WyoFile in an email. “Any response will be made directly to those organizations.”
WyoFile did not receive a response to several requests for comment to Aethon Energy.
Existing discharge levels
The complaint and request for investigation comes as Aethon and Burlington Resources seek to expand the Moneta Divide Oil and gas field by drilling another 4,250 wells. As part of that proposal, they have applied for a DEQ permit to discharge up to 8.27 million gallons a day of produced water and up to 2,161 tons a month of total dissolved solids into the two creeks.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Thursday hosted a “cooperators’ meeting” at which various entities with interests in the expansion were updated on the federal government’s separate environmental review of the Aethon and Burlington proposal. The meeting in Casper was called to select a preferred alternative from among several considered in a draft environmental impact statement and to determine whether any additional environmental study was necessary.
But details of the gathering remain secret.
“Because we are cooperating agencies we are not allowed to discuss what was discussed at that meeting,” said Thermopolis mayor Mike Chimenti, who attended. “I think we learned a lot,” he said. “I did.”
Chimenti told WyoFile on Monday he would email the BLM to find out what might be revealed to the public and when.
To allow the existing and ongoing discharge from some 800 wells already in the field, the Wyoming DEQ in 2013 issued a permit outlining several requirements, restrictions and limits. That expired in 2017, the groups wrote, and was extended under administrative rules.
The companies seek a renewal of the permit from Wyoming with expanded allowances for the discharge of more pollutants. Permitting officials have said this is largely due to the fact that the companies have not found a suitable underground aquifer for reinjection of the oilfield by-product.
But the ongoing discharges allegedly violate federal and state law, regulations, permits and standards, according to the complaint letter. “The produced water is not of good enough quality to be used for wildlife or livestock watering and is not actually being put to such use,” the letter reads.
The letter explains that Wyoming rules state that various limits for chlorides, sulfates, total dissolved solids, specific electrical conductance, and pH allow livestock and wildlife to use discharged water safely. But, the existing permit doesn’t contain any limits, other than a salt-load limit, for several discharge points, the complaint states.
Federal and state regulations require that discharged water “actually be put to … use,” the letter reads. Wastewater that doesn’t meet those quality and use requirements “may not be lawfully discharged,” according to the complaint.
The existing permit “fails to demonstrate,” that the companies are adhering to the law, the letter reads.
The existing permit allows 7,456 milligrams per liter of total dissolved solids — 2,456 mg/L over and above “the maximum concentration deemed safe … for livestock and wildlife,” according to the complaint.
DEQ-funded research says concentrations more than 5,000 mg/L may be harmful, the letter states. It also cites a study arguing that water containing more than 500 mg/L of TDS should be evaluated for its constituents.
Protecting wildlife and livestock
In requesting a probe, the groups wrote that the existing permit allows for discharge of up to 908 tons for total dissolved solids a month, but has no limits on the concentration of effluents like chlorides and sulfates.
“A monthly load limit alone does not ensure that TDS concentrations are kept below levels needed to protect wildlife and livestock,” the letter states. “As a result, actual TDS concentrations at the outfall(s) could reach — and likely have reached — levels that are harmful to livestock and wildlife.”
Hazardous chemicals used in oilfield work also have the potential to be discharged, the letter says. But there is no requirement for what’s known as “whole effluent testing” to ensure those chemicals are not being loosed into the environment.
“Without WET testing, or some other form of scientifically-rigorous testing protocol, the DEQ is unable to determine whether the effluent is suitable for livestock and wildlife watering, and is therefore unable to ensure compliance,” the letter reads.
The groups also wrote that a “signed letter of beneficial use” from an unnamed landowner and statements from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department are not enough to meet the requirements.
At least one landowner in the area has said produced water has been beneficial to his operation for decades. At a public hearing on the proposed DEQ permit renewal that would allow expansion of the Moneta Divide oil and gas field, rancher Rob Hendry said his family’s operation has “utilized that water since 1965.”
Hendry, who is chairman of the Natrona County Board of Commissioners, said his father used to ask a previous oilfield operator to turn the water on. “The companies have always been good to the environment,” he said.
The conservation groups’ complaint reads: “evidence of actual use must be provided and must be specific to the discharge in question.” An investigation is required, the letter states, “because the permit lacks any evidence that these two requirements [sufficient quality and actual use] are being met.”
‘Significant environmental impacts’
The discharges also have violated Wyoming standards that protect invertebrates, amphibians, fish, drinking water and flora and fauna, the complaint states. Yet the BLM, which proposes to approve the oilfield expansion, found in its own study that Alkali Creek already “has been severely impacted,” by discharges from the energy field.
“Perennial flows [from oilfield discharges] in those formerly ephemeral drainages have caused disturbance of the drainage beds and inundation and destruction of drainage vegetation, which in turn has led to accelerated erosion,” the BLM wrote in its environmental analysis of the proposed Moneta Divide expansion.
The dominant process has been “degradational.” The draft EIS compares reaches of Alkali Creek above and below points of discharge.
Above the discharges, Alkali Creek “is well vegetated, including in the channel bottom.” Below the discharge points “channel changes include scour, degradation, and aggradation of sediment,” the document states. “Bank loss has occurred at various points.”
In Badwater Creek and Boysen Reservoir’s Badwater Bay, the severity of the impacts prompted the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to write that “the Department is very concerned about fish and aquatic macroinvertebrate exposure to produced water,” the conservationists’ letter states. The flows in the short-term may kill aquatic organisms and long-term exposure “may have negative effects on growth and reproduction,” the letter quotes Game and Fish as writing.
Overall, the state environmental agency fails to enforce “fundamental requirements of the Clean Water Act,” and its own water standards, the letter states.
As DEQ considers the complaint, Aethon and Burlington seek to expand across 327,645 acres of public, state and private lands near Lysite.
An expanded Moneta Divide field is projected to produce about 18.16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 254 million barrels of oil over 65 years. 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 BLM has said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has written that the permit DEQ would renew for an expanded field may result in “significant” degradation to the Class I protected Wind River downstream of Boysen Reservoir.
Aethon wrote that the proposed new DEQ permit “adequately satisfies applicable regulations.” The draft permit “is more protective and compliance requirements have been significantly increased compared to previous permit authorizations for these discharges,” the company told Wyoming regulators.
The EPA also wrote that the BLM’s draft EIS, a separate effort to permit oilfield expansion, lacks necessary information. Proposed new discharges “would have significant environmental impacts based on project context and intensity,” the EPA wrote.