February 2010

A cautious yes to evaporative ponds in Dolores County

By Gail Binkly

The Dolores County commissioners gave a guarded thumbs-up Feb. 1 to a proposal for an energy-waste facility, but only after a 4 1/2-hour public hearing that included considerable wrangling over the exact terms of the approval.

“I think this is a big decision and it takes a little time to get it right,” said Commissioner Ernie Williams.

The proposal by brothers Casey and Kelly McClellan of Four Corners Recycling Systems is for evaporative basins to treat wastes generated from energy exploration and production. It would be built on 80 acres of a larger tract owned by Fred and Betty Holley, about 4 miles west of Cahone and 8 miles south of Dove Creek. The site is surrounded by BLM lands and the Holleys’ other property.

The facility would start with two four-acre evaporative ponds but could eventually expand to 10.

It is very similar to a project the McClellans had hoped to build near Hovenweep National Monument, but that plan was rejected by Montezuma County in June 2009 after citizens voiced concerns about effects on groundwater, air quality, and traffic.

The McClellans sued the county over the denial, but 22nd Judicial District Judge Sharon Hansen upheld the county’s action in a ruling Dec. 23.

The McClellans met with a friendlier reception in Dolores County.

The audience of more than 40 that packed into the Dove Creek courtroom on Feb. 1 included many people obviously familiar with and savvy about the energy industry. The group appeared largely in favor of the proposal, but some raised questions and objections.

Dirk Hood of Cahone asked where the waste sludge is being taken now.

Nathan Barton, environmental engineer for the project, said the waste is not sludge, but “produced water,” the result of drillers pumping thousands of gallons into the ground to “frack” a formation. Produced water contains salts and small amounts of chemicals.

Barton said the water currently is hauled to facilities near Naturita, Colo., and in Utah, or is taken to New Mexico to be injected back into the ground. Having to haul the wastes so far raises expenses for companies, he said.

Barton addressed concerns that had been raised at a planning-commission meeting in December [Free Press, January 2010]. He said odor from such facilities is caused by hydrocarbons and the bacteria that eat them, plus contaminants such as sulfur dioxide. The facility will separate out hydrocarbons as rapidly as possible, beginning at the well head, and contaminants will be filtered out as well.

“Odor is not a significant problem for a properly maintained and properly operating facility,” Barton said.

Regarding noise, Barton said generators will be run only during daylight hours, except in emergencies. The facility will operate from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., except during emergencies — which could be on-site, such as a leak requiring repair; or off-site, such as a spill where wastes would have to be hauled to the site immediately.

Contamination of groundwater is highly unlikely since the formations under the site aren’t normally aquifercontaining and the nearest wells are more than 2 miles away, he said.

Barton said the developers expect about 10 6,000-gallon trucks per day, or their equivalent, coming to the facility, but Casey McClellan said that that number could increase.

County resident Michael Kesterson asked how the facility would benefit Dolores County. “I’m not really interested in taking the waste from San Miguel or San Juan or Montezuma County,” he said. He also asked what taxes would be paid and to what county.

Barton said tax is based on where products are sold or services performed, not where a bill comes from.

Casey McClellan said, when their proposal was being considered in Montezuma County, “we got a bunch of blank stares” about taxation. “There wasn’t really a method for that.” If the proposal had been approved, he said, “we were just going to volunteer something to the county — we were just going to give X to the county.”

“What was your X going to be?” asked Commissioner Doug Stowe, to widespread laughter.

McClellan said it could have been an amount per barrel. He said he hadn’t mentioned it to Montezuma County because it might have been seen as a bribe.

Canyons of the Ancients Manager LouAnn Jacobson sent a letter stating that the BLM has concerns because the project “has the potential to impact resources on adjacent public lands.”

She wrote that the application “provides very little technical information” regarding health and safety, the proposed leak-detection system is inadequate because it does not provide an immediate warning, the analysis of surface runoff is inadequate, and a proposed land-farming operation is not discussed in the document.

In addition, there was no explanation of what techniques will be used to treat water so that it could be used on roads or even crops, one of the McClellans’ goals, Jacobson wrote.

“The BLM understands there is a need for this facility,” but more information is needed, said Tom Rice of the Dolores Public Lands Office, who read the letter aloud at the meeting.

Barton said the items will indeed be addressed in the applicants’ plan to the state. “We’re not at that point yet.”

The state needs approval for the land-use change from the county before the state will consider the proposal. Then, if the state gives approval, the applicants must return to the county for a “certificate of designation” for the waste facility, Barton said.

But the commissioners seemed to concur with the BLM that the application was vague.

Williams noted that Barton had not spoken about the land farm to treat petroleum-contaminated soils. Barton said the land farm would be a basin where the soils would be aired and treated by the sun.

Williams also said there were no specifics about the technology that would be used to treat water for recycling for irrigation, and what noise that machinery might produce. Also, he voiced doubts about whether the facility could stick to daylight-only operation during an energy boom, when operators might run out of room to store fluids produced from fracking, which occurs around the clock.

Williams also said the application was too vague about what materials the site could accept. “Unless you say you’re only taking produced water, that means you can take almost anything from the oil field that is not hazardous materials,” he said. “I think it’s only fair to the public to say what you can and can’t take.”

Casey McClellan said they anticipate about 85 percent of the material to be produced water. The materials haven’t been characterized yet, but they will later in the process, he said.

Regarding the water-filtering and treatment method, the exact one hasn’t been chosen, McClellan said.

Williams also had concerns about approving the facility for 10 ponds. “Why not do one to three ponds and if there’s a need for expansion, based on your track record, [approve that then]?”

McClellan said they want to be able to expand quickly if need be, rather than going through the lengthy approval process again.

The commissioners then went into an executive session for 25 minutes to receive legal advice from their attorney, Dennis Golbricht.

When they returned, Williams said he would still like to approve just a few ponds to start. He said the location was perfect and the project needed, but “this is so vague right here I don’t know what I’m approving or disapproving.”

Stowe and Chair Julie Kibel agreed. “I’ve graded enough papers in my day that [I know] it’s here but it’s not all here,” Kibel said. She said there needs to be a definition of an “emergency” that would require operation at night, as well as a delineation of the materials to be accepted.

The applicants and the commissioners then wrangled over how the motion to approve should be worded.

Casey McClellan said they did not believe the state would consider a proposal that had only “preliminary” approval.

“The board may not feel comfortable approving a land-use change given the information they’ve been provided today,” responded Golbricht.

At last the board voted 3-0 to give preliminary approval to allow the application to advance to the state. The commissioners reserved the right to review the project anew after the state’s recommendation, and said any approval later may be with conditions including restrictions on build-out of all the ponds. They said no landdevelopment agreement was issued with the preliminary approval, and required that the applicants accept the fact that this was a modification of the usual county approval process.

They also said that if the state rejects the application because of the wording of their motion, it would come back to the county for a solution to be found.