March 2009

A furor over a proposed toxic-waste site near Hovenweep

By Gail Binkly

A proposal to create a facility in far western Montezuma County to treat and recycle toxic wastes from the oil and gas industry has horrified many neighbors, tourism promoters, farmers, and environmentalists.

But the developers of the Outhouse Recycling Facility, which would be built on 83 acres of a 473-acre parcel just off the Hovenweep Road (County Road 10), say it would provide a much-needed service in a completely safe manner.

A standing-room-only crowd of about 70 pressed into an overheated meeting room Feb. 26 for a public hearing before the county planning commission. After taking 2 1/2 hours’ worth of comments, the planning board made no decision on whether to recommend approval of the proposal, but extended the hearing to its March 26 meeting.

Brothers Casey and Kelly McClellan of Mancos, Colo., and Farmington, N.M.. respectively, were asking for a high-impact permit and either industrial zoning or a special-use permit for the facility.

Casey McClellan is a member of the planning commission but recused himself from the discussions.

Under county regulations adopted in 2008, some industrial operations — including oil and gas wells, gravel pits and asphalt plants — can be allowed via special-use permits on large agricultural tracts without changing the zoning to industrial. The developers said they preferred not to seek the zoning change but would if it were required.

The facility, run by Four Corners Recycling Systems of Mancos, would treat oil and gas wastes called E & P wastes (for exploration and production).

Nathan Barton, the engineer for the project, said the location off the lonely and scenic road had been chosen from about a dozen possible sites because of its remoteness, geology, distance from streams and lakes, and relative flatness. The nearest residence is more than a mile away.

Barton said the project makes sense because it would mean oil and gas producers operating in Montezuma and Dolores counties and along the Utah-Colorado border would not have to haul their wastes greater distances to existing facilities in Bloomfield, N.M.; Naturita, Colo.; or Lisbon Valley, Utah. That means lower costs for the industry as well as fewer truck emissions, he said.

He said the facility would also provide tax revenues to the county and create two full-time jobs after construction.

But many citizens seemed appalled at the thought of having the waste site near ag land and along a popular tourist route.

The site, which was a private campground under different owners, adjoins Canyons of the Ancients National Monument on three sides. Its southwestern boundary crosses BLM Road 4531, the primary vehicle access to Painted Hand Pueblo, a destination point for the monument. That same road also accesses one of Hovenweep National Monument’s outlier ruins.

“This would have the potential to negatively impact the visitor experience,” LouAnn Jacobson, monument manager, told the planning commission. She said trail counters showed that at least 2,700 people visited Painted Hand in 2008, adding that she took issue with characterizations in application materials that the nearest “major areas visited” were five to 20 miles away and there was “nothing going on out there.”

Lynn Dyer, tourism director for Mesa Verde Country®, said her phone has been “ringing off the hook” since word had spread of the proposal, with people voicing concerns about impacts to tourism.

She noted that Road 10 is part of the National Scenic Byway system and is “the ony national scenic byway in the entire system that is archaeology-oriented.” Currently a two-state byway, the route is soon to become a fourstate byway and an All-American Road, she said.

“Tourism brings in a third or more of the revenue to this county and employs a lot more than two people,” Dyer said.

She added that the county has spent $50,000 in federal grant money to develop an agritourism program in the area, which also could be affected.

Gary Wright of Road 10, who said he had met with about 40 concerned residents in Pleasant View, said the project could damage agriculture. Millions of dollars were spent to bring water to the general area, and irrigated lands there now produce fruit, alfalfa and other crops. But airborne contaminants blown from the site could ruin that, he said.

“We’re concerned about decreased property values because of what might and what will end up on our land,” he said.

There are days, Wright said, “when the sky is literally brown. All this will end up in the community and on our food that we are attempting to sell.”

He said the application materials were misleading, making the project sound so benign “you could almost put a playground on it.”

But the project proponents said it was essentially benign.

“I have been a little bit surprised at the reaction, because we look at it as a positive,” said Casey McClellan.

“This is an environmentally sound and safe recycling of E & P wastes,” Barton said. The facility would treat up to 60,000 gallons per day of wastes including “produced water” (water and chemicals used in fracturing rock layers to extract natural gas), petroleum-contaminated soils, and drilling mud. The drilling mud consists of clay, chemicals, water and petroleum products.

The chemicals include acids and polymers; the petroleum products have the same ingredients as crude oil, gasoline and diesel, Barton said.

The facility would operate six days a week, with hours varying seasonally, but mainly in the daytime. It would draw wastes mostly from wells within a 75-mile radius, though some might come from up to 150 miles away. It will ultimately provide “usable recyclable materials including water, oil and salts instead of wastes,” Barton said.

Federal and state law allows E & P wastes to be treated or disposed of either at the wellhead, at centralized sites owned by the oil or gas operator, or at larger commercial facilities such as the one being proposed.

When taken to the Outhouse Recycling Facility, the material will be inspected and run through a series of separators to remove sediment, separate oil from water, and so on, Barton said. The water will be transferred to double-lined basins with leak-detection systems to be stored and evaporated or put through purification systems. Petroleum separated out will be shipped from the site. The clean water that is produced after wastes are removed will be used onsite or hauled away. Collected salts will likewise be used or transported. There will be no burning on-site, Barton said.

The petroleum-contaminated soils will be “land-farmed” on-site and when they meet safety standards will be used for different purposes. No waste materials will be left on-site after the facility is closed. Its life expectancy, Barton said, is about 20 years but depends on demand.

The entire facility would be surrounded by berms and a fence to discourage people and wildlife both. A marshy swale would guard against surface run-off. Basins for holding and treatment of water would be covered by netting to stop birds from landing.

The facility would draw about 10 trucks a day plus a few private vehicles, which would not exceed county threshold standards, Barton said.

Most odor is “very localized,” he said. Sometimes a sulfur odor can be emitted by the bacteria eating the petroleum products but the sulfur odor is not related to toxic hydrogen sulfide.

Barton said the chances of windborne contamination were slight. Sediments will be pulled out of the wastes at the beginning of the process, leaving clay and salts. The operators, he said, must be very careful and will probably vacuum out the residues as water evaporates.

Citizens had a host of other concerns. One of the biggest was safety and road traffic on Road 10 as well as BB and CC, which connect with 10. None of those have any shoulders, and the chip-sealing done in 2005 elevated the surface of 10 considerably, creating steep banks that make it nearly impossible to pull over.

“That’s a farm road from when you turn off 491 to where people turn off to Casey and Kelly’s place,” said Pleasant View resident Bessie White.

“There are a lot of accidents out there,” Wright said, warning that the combination of “trucks, tractors and tourists — the three T’s” — did not bode well. He said the sheriff’s office likely would not have money to pay for additional patrols and the county would have to find funds for upkeep on the road itself.

John Wolf of Road CC said there was a chance the waste materials could include “technologically enhanced normally occuring radioactive materials.” When someone drills deep into the earth and pumps brine or mud into the hole, that mud will pick up radioactivity from any uranium strata, he said.

When the water is evaporated, the heaviest materials will remain at the bottom of the pit, “and uranium and vanadium are the densest materials on the periodic table,” he said.

Even if the operator vacuums up the sediments and scrapes off the lining, the lining itself would then be contaminated.

But not everyone agreed. Lonnie Maloff, a farmer and rancher, said operations like this would help ag folks afford to stay on their land.

“I think we need to wake up and start letting these farmers and ranchers make a living on their place,” he said. “These people move in with these little parcels and try to tell us what we can do on our place.”

Gregg Tripp, a petroleum engineer and long-term resident, praised the design and called the proposal “a pivotal piece for the big expansion that’s going to come from oil and gas in this area.”

They were in the minority, however.

Betty Ann Kolner of Road BB said she had hoped to see more alternativeenergy projects developed and asked whether, after 20 years, the company could get another permit to operate on another portion of its land, then another 20 years later, leading to a de facto industrial property.

Others raised concerns about weed control and watering on the berms along Road 10; possible groundwater contamination; enforcement of standards; and how much the county would really benefit economically from the project.

County Assessor Mark Vanderpool later told the Free Press that, on such a property, the portion of the land that is used commercially would be assessed at commercial rates while the remainder would be assessed as ag land if that was its use. Separate deeds are not required.

All personal property and equipment used for the business would be taxed. However, Vanderpool said he did not know whether the facility would pay a production tax for the materials it recycles — “I don’t know yet if there is value in that sludge, for lack of a better word,” he said, adding that he is contacting the state to find out.

If the operators sell any of the products resulting from the recycling, they would pay county sales tax, but the sales tax is due to expire soon and is only a half-cent on a dollar anyway.

However, at the meeting, planning commissioners said they did not think they should be considering the project’s economic aspects.

The planning commissioners on Feb. 26 indicated they did not think industrial zoning would be required for the project but made no motion to that effect.

The hearing will be continued on Thursday, March 26, and will be the first topic on the agenda.

Planning Director Susan Carver said, before then, the application documents will be posted on the county’s web site, www.co.montezuma.co.us.