Having lost at the district-court level in their lawsuit against Montezuma County, brothers Casey and Kelly McClellan are moving ahead with a proposal to create a waste-treatment facility in Dolores County similar to the one that was rejected locally.
On Dec. 28, the Dolores County Planning Commission voted 5-0 to pass the proposal on to the county commissioners with a recommendation for approval.
The new project, called the McCloud Point Facility, would be built on 80 acres of a larger tract owned by Fred and Betty Holley. It would be for the treatment and recycling of energy wastes and would include up to 10 evaporative basins and solids-treatment basins. It would be located about 7 1/2 miles south of Dove Creek and about 6 miles due west of Cahone and Highway 491.
Casey McClellan told the Free Press that the remote Dolores County location is excellent. “The great thing is, we didn’t approach them, Fred [Holley] called us,” he said. “I came out and looked at it, then Nathan [Barton, the project’s environmental engineer] came out. I think we passed by three houses to get there — that’s all.”
McClellan said the launch of the McCloud Point proposal, which had occurred well before a Dec. 23 ruling upholding Montezuma County’s decision to reject the McClellans’ very similar project near Hovenweep National Monument [see accompanying story], does not necessarily mean the McClellans will abandon the Hovenweep proposal. He said they are still deciding whether to appeal the court’s decision.
In the meantime, he said he was pleased by the Dolores County Planning Commission’s recommendation. “I feel like people are much more open to the idea here,” he said.
However, the favorable vote did not come without some dissent. About 50 people packed into the room at the Dolores County courthouse for the public meeting, and the proposal prompted some lively debate.
Evaporative-pond proposals in the region have generally met with resistance. The Hovenweep proposal drew dozens of comments in opposition and prompted the formation of a grassroots group that hired attorney Erin Johnson to fight the project.
An earlier proposal in Dolores County failed when it turned out the ponds would be too close to neighbors, in violation of state law. The developer, David Cressler, sought to move the project to San Juan County, Utah, but officials there frowned on it.
In 2007, the state of Utah denied a proposal for a single evaporative pond, also near Hovenweep, after San Juan County officials objected.
As outlined by Barton, the proposal by the McClellans and their company, Four Corners Recycling Systems, would start with two ponds and expand to as many as 10, each about 400 feet square, including berms.
The facility would treat wastes from energy exploration and production. Much would be in the form of “production water,” the briney water recovered after fresh water is pumped into natural-gas-containing formations in a process called “fracking.” McClellan said he has been told by the Bill Barrett Corp., a natural-gas exploration company, that it takes approximately 50,000 barrels of water to frack one well and about 15,000 of that is recovered.
Access would be primarily off Dolores County Road 9 but could come from several other roads.
Planning Chairman Steve Garchar said the company and the county commissioners would work out an agreement for paying for impacts to the county roads.
Worried about smells
Barton said the site’s pluses include the geology and soils. The foundation is Dakota sandstone and the formations below that are not normally aquifer-containing, he said. Rainfall is low, which would speed up the evaporation process.
There are few private tracts adjoining the Holleys’; much of the surrounding land is BLM-owned. The nearest residence is nearly a mile away, and the site is far from most water wells.
Barton said the lifespan of the facility will depend on demand, but that individual cells have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years, after which time a pond’s liner begins to break down.
Barton said the driller must remove 95 percent of the volatile organic compounds from the produced or recovered water at the well head before the water can be transported off-site. It then goes through one or more steps whereby remaining oil is skimmed off before being placed in an evaporative pond.
In the ponds the water can be further purified through the use of carbon filters, air strippers, reverse osmosis, and/or enzymes. The particular system to be used at McCloud has yet to be decided.
Barton said the water could eventually be used for dust control, as it would contain sodium and magnesium chlorides used by road departments. It could also be used in fracking instead of fresh water, or if purified sufficiently, could be used for irrigation.
No solids will be left at the site; everything will be recycled or hauled away, he said.
“The idea is to use anything possible in a beneficial manner and remove everything else,” Barton said.
Audience members had a number of questions, many relating to possibile smells from the VOCs, sulfur or other compounds. Barton said Colorado law strictly regulates odors (Utah, however, does not) and that there is a device that can measure odors.
Local resident Michael Kesterson asked what recourse a landowner would have if he did smell an odor, other than buying the $1,400 device to measure it. Barton said the burden is on the developers to prove that they are in compliance and if there is a complaint, they would have to supply the device.
Barton said the technology used to treat the wastes made it extremely unlikely there would be any smells beyond the property.
Loren Workman, however, said he had researched similar facilities and learned that many did produce odors. Also, while traveling through Baggs, Wyo., he smelled an odor and was told by residents that it came from a similar wastewater facility 2 1/2 miles away.
“My place is downwind and I don’t think I want to be a guinea pig for something you guys are trying to get a handle on,” Workman said. He added that he wasn’t convinced the developers had provided enough specifics about their treatment methods.
“I do have concerns,” Workman said. “I put my life investment in our place here.”
A ripple effect
Albert Colcord agreed, saying he was worried about odor and air quality. Given prevailing winds, he said, “I’m going to get the first whiff.” He also said there needed to be more specifics. “There are too many ifs, ands and adlib scenarios,” he said.
McClellan said Bill Barrett has leased 450,000 acres in Montezuma and Dolores counties, and it’s just one of more than 30 companies that hold mineral leases. “So there’s a lot of hope that oil and gas development will occur, but by far every one of those well sites is going to have a much stronger odor than this facility,” he said.
Colcord also asked how many people the facility would employ.
Casey McClellan said, following construction, there would be two full-time employees, but that four or five new jobs in Dolores County would be equivalent to 350 jobs in Denver. He said, by lowering oil and gas companies’ waste-disposal costs, his facility would encourage production and create a far-reaching “ripple effect.”
“It may allow the oil and gas companies to commit to this area. . .,” he said. “There may be more oil and gas development, so somebody’s farm might be saved.” Maybe the Dove Creek Conoco station will reopen, McClellan added.
Kesterson then suggested the facility take wastes only from production in Dolores County instead of accepting wastes from surrounding areas that don’t want them. “We’ll take what we make,” he said.
However, McClellan said it would make no sense for trucks to travel through Dolores County to a disposal site in Montrose County or elsewhere.
Several others spoke for the facility, citing the need for economic development in the impoverished county — Dolores County in recent months has had the highest unemployment rate in Colorado.
“It’s time we wake up,” said Stanley Daves. “Do you want to keep your kids here?”
Tom Wood of San Miguel County said he would be “happy to donate the property to these guys and live right beside it.”
“We are in a hard-hit area,” Wood said, telling Workman, “You may be retired, but there’s young people that need jobs.”
Dennis Atwater, a member of the Montezuma County Planning Commission, gave an impassioned speech in favor of the facility after making it clear he was not representing the planning board.
“I studied the project when it was proposed [near Hovenweep],” he said. “There wasn’t a better place in our county to put this. It belonged there. The planning commissioners voted unanimously to pass it on to the commissioners to be approved.
“But the commissioners didn’t, and they didn’t for the wrong reasons, and they didn’t to the detriment of the whole region, and I’m still mad about it. It became a political thing. . . .
“In my opinion we missed a great opportunity to have this facility in Montezuma County. It’s going to benefit the whole region.”
McClellan insisted the facility would be safe and beneficial.
“This is a green project,” McClellan said. “I can’t imagine how we can make this any greener.”
The planning commission then voted in favor of the facility.