An oil boom in Wyoming has a filthy side effect: A string of accidents from a remote gulley in the Powder River Basin to a refinery in downtown Cheyenne already has made this year the state’s worst for oil spills since at least 2009, state records show.
Almost 220,000 gallons of oil already has spilled in Wyoming this year, more than double the 90,000 gallons all last year. About 165,000 gallons spilled in 2010, the previous worst year since the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality began tracking spills in a database that year.
“There’s a lot more production,” Joe Hunter, the department’s emergency response coordinator, said Thursday. “If you’re producing more, there’s going to be more opportunities for releases. We’re doing what we can to just make sure the things get cleaned up.”
Much of the oil spilled lately has been in the Powder River Basin, epicenter of Wyoming’s nascent oil boom. Oil production in the basin has doubled in the past five years as companies tap the Niobrara Shale and other deep formations with horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
All the while, large volumes of oil spill on Wyoming’s remote landscapes with little public awareness. None of the federal or state agencies with purview over oil infrastructure and public lands in Wyoming actively notifies the public about oil spills except in extreme cases.
“Unless it’s going to have an impact on public health, that’s where we would notify the public,” Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Keith Guille said Thursday.
The biggest spills in Wyoming this year haven’t affected waterways, posed no risk to the public and promptly were cleaned up, according to Guille.
Guille said the department is working on developing a publicly accessible spills database. Such public disclosure could help the state agency encourage companies to work harder to prevent oil spills, said one environmental advocate.
“I think they’re more likely to be more careful. It’s a deterrent,” said Jill Morrison with the Powder River Basin Resource Council landowner advocacy group.
Department of Environmental Quality records disclosed in response to a request by The Associated Press show several recent oil spills weren’t inconsequential in scale. Three within a month last spring totaled more than 100,000 gallons and originated with infrastructure owned and operated by a single company, Casper-based Belle Fourche Pipeline:
– On April 30, a malfunction caused a 210,000-gallon oil storage tank owned by Belle Fourche in Campbell County to overflow, spilling 70,000 gallons of crude near a drilling site;
– On May 19, corrosion at a damaged section of a Belle Fourche pipeline spilled 25,000 gallons of oil that flowed three miles down an ephemeral drainage in Johnson County;
– On May 23, heavy equipment damaged one of the company’s pipelines in Crook County, spilling about 9,000 gallons of oil.
The Department of Environmental Quality isn’t pursuing fines against Belle Fourche or HollyFrontier, owner of a Cheyenne refinery where 70,000 gallons of oil spilled July 13, Hunter said.
The refinery spill happened when a severe thunderstorm dumped heavy rain and hail on a crude oil storage tank and cause the tank’s floating roof to collapse. The oil remained on site and was cleaned up quickly, according to Hunter.
The department decides whether to pursue fines against companies on a case-by-case basis, Hunter said.
“If we think there’s negligence, we’ll absolutely, 100 percent go after a violation. If surface water is obviously impacted, that’s grounds for seeking enforcement,” he said.
“You can’t really just say, you know, they met this number, so we’re going after enforcement. You’ve got to look at circumstances, was there negligence, could this be prevented?”
A message seeking comment from HollyFrontier wasn’t immediately returned Thursday.
Bob Dundas, environmental coordinator for Belle Fourche Pipeline, said Thursday he would forward a reporter’s message to somebody else in the company who could comment. Nobody at the company called by press time.
“It looks like if we’re going to have more oil production, we’d better step up enforcement,” Morrison said. “We want to be looking at how we’re going to prevent this increase in oil spills.”
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