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An oil and gas operator responsible for a well blowout that spilled thousands of gallons of oily "production water" near a scenic Utah stretch of the Green River last year faces a possible $10,000 fine, a sum environmentalists criticize as too meager, considering the spill's impact.
The spill stemmed from a valve failure that allowed crude oil and water to spray out and flow down a dry wash for 34 hours in May 2014, some of it reaching the Green River, where observers photographed a sheen moving through Canyonlands National Park.
The Utah Division of Water Quality last month reached a settlement to resolve a notice of violation it issued to SW Energy, a tiny family-owned firm based in Salt Lake City. The proposed fine, which is so low it does not require approval from the Water Quality Board, is subject to a public comment period through Sept. 28.
"It doesn't come close to paying the costs necessary to clean it up, not to speak of the damage to the water supply itself," said Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council. He contends the accident was preventable and SW Energy was ill-prepared to handle a blowout, which spewed for hours while the company scrambled to get contractors on site to shut the well down.
But regulators said the company, which owns two other wells at Salt Wash 12 miles south of the town of Green River, responded in a responsible way.
"When the well blew out, they jumped on it and were able to kill that well. Then they jumped on the cleanup and remediation. They were conscientious about it. We saw no evidence of neglect. It was a mechanical failure and they fixed it," DWQ Executive Director Walt Baker said.
"We don't minimize such events. When we compute the barrels of production water discharged and percentage of oil, it was not a significant discharge. [The Environmental Protection Agency] categorized it as minor."
The contractor working as the company's pumper discovered the blowout at 7 a.m. on May 21. It took several hours to get tankers on site in an unsuccessful attempt to plug the well by pumping brine down the bore hole.
The well was killed 30 hours after the discovery, thanks to a load of heavy drilling mud provided by crews working in an oil field near Moab. It has since been plugged permanently.
"Because of the response effort at the well pad, much less production water and oil went down the wash, thus minimizing the environmental impact," the company wrote in its formal response to the violation. SW Energy calculated about 3,000 barrels of fluid escaped, pouring out at a rate of 90 barrels an hour. A system of hastily constructed berms contained much of the fluid and 2,700 barrels were recovered.
The company claimed that the fluid contained 10 percent oil, meaning 306 barrels of oil were released. But well production data maintained by the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining suggest the ratio of oil to water was much higher, closer to one-to-one than one-to-nine.
For example, between Jan. 1 and the day the well blew out, it yielded about 3,200 barrels of oil to about 3,600 barrels of water.
"It seems emblematic; there are lots of problems like this waiting to happen, lots of old wells near rivers like the Green, the Colorado, the Dirty Devil, that are left on the books producing next to nothing," said Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
"SUWA and other groups are going to scrutinize how DWQ came up with this proposed fine and submit comments if warranted," he said.
Complicating the 21-day cleanup was a rain storm that sent floodwaters down Salt Wash two days after the blowout, presumably washing hydrocarbons into the Green River located about three miles from the well.
Frankel was particularly incensed that DWQ declined to take samples downstream from where Salt Wash meets the Green.
But Baker questioned both the practicality and usefulness of taking downstream samples since the Green's huge spring flows would have assimilated most of the pollution from any plume the storm would have pushed into the river.
DWQ did take samples of the Green on May 24 and 30 near Salt Wash. The company noted neither sample yielded evidence of hydrocarbons, although many observers believe oil did reach the river.
SW Energy also earned credit for having a clean compliance history. However, the 2014 blowout was not its first spill.
In 1995, according to court records, the firm lost nearly 500 barrels of oil from a corroded storage tank at the same well that blew out. The oil escaped through a hole in the 32-year-old tank and the well was shut in for 40 days while the tank was replaced and the mess cleaned up.