Colorado: 350 oil and gas spills in less than two years; benzene found in groundwater; fines are almost non-existent

There is an extremely important, and disturbing, story in the Denver Post today.

A Post investigation found that four oil and natural gas companies have been responsible for 350 spills in Colorado since January, 2010.

Just this summer, one company had three spills in Weld county alone that included highly toxic substances. Benzene, a known carcinogen, was confirmed to be found in groundwater.

In Colorado, about eight wells are being drilled each day. But The Post found that:

  • spills are happening at the rate of seven per week.
  • so far in 2011, more than 2 million gallons have been spilled of diesel, oil, drilling wastewater and chemicals.
  • state regulators rarely penalize companies responsible for spills — issuing only five fines for spills that happened three or more years ago. What's more, state regulators have commended these companies for environmental excellence.

The spills are unacceptable. Any industry with that many accidents has a serious problem that needs to be fixed before it continues operating. But regulators continue to permit new wells. I think there is a combination of factors at work: not enough inspectors, inspectors and regulators are not strict enough, rules are not protective enough, and companies do not have strong safety standards in place. I also could not find any of these spills in the on-line database of the National Response Center, even though all spills are supposed to be reported there. The result is that public health and the environment are not being adequately protected.

The Post points out that the oil and gas industry opposes stronger regulations. Recently an industry official was quoted as saying that: "The public is skeptical of anything we say. The favorable perception of the oil and gas industry polls at seven percent....." It was suggested that the industry hire new messengers to improve its public perception, but it really doesn't matter who the messenger is. The public understands the facts: the oil and gas industry is a major polluter--contaminating air, water and land in communities across the country--and regulations are not sufficient to stop the industry from continuing sloppy practices that release toxic substances into the environment, endangering health. Much stronger rules are needed at the state and federal level to reduce the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry and protect communities across America. I hope Colorado's officials are as outraged as I am, and that we see a dramatic overhaul of regulatory enforcement there.