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Wilderness Workshop fumes over natural gas leaks

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By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

The Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, a conservation watchdog group, is still evaluating whether to file a lawsuit challenging recent federal approval for enlarging a compressor station that pumps natural gas into a series of storage wells in the Wolf Creek portion of the Thompson Divide.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management in December agreed to permit the changes that would increase the volume of natural gas being pumped into the storage wells, as well as the level of pressure pushing that gas along through the pipes and other infrastructure.
Critics of the approval have questioned whether the agency conducted sufficient environmental analysis of the plans to pump greater volumes of gas, under higher pressure than previously was employed, and the old wells can handle the increase without breaking down or leaking unacceptable amounts of methane into the atmosphere.
The Wolf Creek Storage Unit, as it is known, comprises several old natural-gas wells that were drilled and emptied long ago. Then were repurposed by serve as storage facilities for natural gas meant to serve the needs of customers in the Roaring Fork Valley.
The compressor station, which was installed years ago, is located along the Thompson Creek Road (Garfield County Road 108) as it nears the Spring Gulch cross-country skiing trails a few miles southeast of Carbondale.
“We’re not opposed, universally, to natural gas,” said Wilderness Workshop executive director Sloan Shoemaker in a telephone interview with the Sopris Sun this week.
But when representatives of Wilderness Workshop questioned BLM officials about undertaking a more comprehensive, detailed analysis. Shoemaker said, “They completely blew us off.” 
The BLM officials indicated they had no authority to conduct a more technical review, Shoemaker continued, although he maintained, “We’re just asking for some prudent oversight on this. It’s unfortunate that we have to file an appeal to strong-arm them to the table.”
David Boyd, public information specialist for the BLM’s office near Silt, said any appeal filed in objection to the decision may be able to win a temporary stay of the approval while the appeal is underway.
But, he noted, the BLM had conducted an Environmental Analysis (EA) before granting the permit for an upgrade to the compressor.
Peter Hart, staff attorney for Wilderness Workshop and the one who oversees legal affairs for the organization, said he had seen infrared images of the Wolf Creek well field, in a series of pictures taken by the Earthworks environmental organization.
Earthworks, according to its website, endeavors to “expose the health, environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of mining and energy extraction through work informed by sound science.”
Hart said the images he saw, which were taken last summer, showed that methane is leaking from the storage wells.
“You can see the emissions coming off from the infrastructure,” Hart declared.
According to the owner of the field, Black Hills Energy, and its corporate predecessor, SourceGas, have been working to upgrade the integrity of the wells and stop the leaks.
But, Hart wondered, “If most of the infrastructure has been refurbished, why is it still leaking.”
While conceding that he is not an engineer or expert in gas transmission facilities, “It looks pretty leaky to us,” said Hart, and suggested it could lead to problems similar to those that resulted in massive methane leaks from the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility near Los Angeles in late 2015.
That leak, referred to as a “blowout” in news stories about the situation, lasted for several months and prompted the evacuation of homes in the area, and has lead to calls for stepped-up monitoring and maintenance on such storage facilities around the U.S.
“One of the big conclusions out of the Aliso disaster was that there is a lack of regulatory oversight over these old storage areas,” Hart said, citing similar, if less intense accidents in Texas and Nebraska.
Some of the potential hazards associated with blowouts of this sort, he said, include fires, contaminated soils in nearby areas that could affect local groundwater sources, and other troubles.
He said that the technician who took the infrared photographs, after analyzing them, concluded that “these are significant leaks,” Hart recalled.
The need for the upgrade to the compressor station, Hart continued, is that the old equipment lacks the horsepower to pump gas into wells that already are under considerable pressure, which he felt is an indication that “the pressure in the storage formation are going to increase.”
He agreed with Shoemaker that the overall goal is not to shut down the storage wells or prevent the compressor upgrade, because there are many customers in the Roaring Fork Valley who need the gas supplied by the company.
His hope, he said, is that Black Hills will recognize that it needs to do more investigation into the leaky facility and will undertake that task voluntarily so no appeal will be needed.
Although no meeting date has been set, Hart said he hopes to get together with Black Hills officials in the coming weeks to sort the issues out.
If that does not result in an agreement that more intensive monitoring is appropriate, he said, the suit probably will be filed.
“If we get answers that don’t seem to hold up, or if we don’t get answers,” Hart said, “we’ve got to assume that these are important questions” and that legal action is needed to force the matter.

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Published in The Sopris Sun on Feb. 9 , 2017. 

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