Oil and gas spills are happening more often in Colorado — at a rate of two a day this year — and usually without anyone telling residents.
Colorado has seen nearly as many spills so far this year as were recorded in all of 2013 — a reflection of greater drilling activity, new reporting requirements and, the state says, tougher enforcement.
While the American Petroleum Institute industry trade group recently announced new standards encouraging companies to communicate more robustly with communities, API says this doesn't include conveying details of spills — a task left to government.
State rules require companies to report spills to a Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission database, the owner of land where a spill happens, state health authorities if contaminants reach water, and a local government designee. But government officials generally don't announce spills or otherwise notify nearby residents.
Since May, oil and gas companies spilled liquids — including cancer-causing benzene — at least 177 times, a Denver Post analysis of the COGCC data found. Several spills contaminated groundwater, and one flowed into a river.
The state requires companies to report spills ranging from more than 210 gallons that leak out and get cleaned up to thousands of gallons that could contaminate a river. If the spill leaks out of its storage tank and out of secondary containment, such as metal or earthen berms, then the threshold for reporting is 42 gallons.
Otherwise, spills that are fewer than 210 gallons do not require formal reporting, but companies are still expected to clean them up, officials said.
As of mid-July, the number of spills reported to the COGCC topped 521, approaching the record 575 spills for all of 2013 with five months to go until the end of 2014.
However, the commission amended those numbers by Monday to show that there have been 467 spills this year, citing an accounting error. Commission officials said that spill numbers for the months of May, June and part of July appeared higher because some operators submitted initial reports and subsequent reports for the same spills.
The annual number of spills reported during the previous three years averaged 473, state data show.
Harm from spills often depends on whether contaminants reach water, which accelerates their spread. Of the nearly 2,500 spills reported since January 2010, 142 (5.7 percent) contaminated surface water. At least 375 spills (15.2 percent) contaminated groundwater.
The spills surge reflects an intensifying drilling boom with more than 52,000 active wells around Colorado. Companies drilled nearly half those wells along the heavily populated Front Range.
When companies spill oil and gas, state regulators oversee investigations and cleanups — and penalize rule violators. Colorado rules require companies to verbally notify the COGCC within 24 hours and to file a written report within 72 hours when more than 210 gallons are spilled — a threshold lowered in August 2013 from 840 gallons.
The rules went into effect in February, according to the COGCC. Officials with the commission said it will take them several weeks to look through the data and determine how much of the increase was because of the lower threshold.
"It is anticipated that spill report numbers will increase due to the lower reporting thresholds, the ongoing increase in the number of producing wells, and the COGCC's increased attention to enforcement," state deputy director of natural resources Bob Randall said in an e-mailed response to Denver Post questions.
The COGCC has hired new inspectors and, in 2013, imposed penalties in 34 cases with an average fine of $34,118 for rule violations, records show.
But communicating with residents remains inconsistent. Conservation Colorado executive director Pete Maysmith said companies or government authorities ought to notify residents quickly when spills happen.
"These oil and gas companies are engaging in a heavy industrial activity — right over the backyard fence in some instances. And with that comes the responsibility of telling people who could be affected when something goes wrong," Maysmith said.
"We hear a lot from the industry about how they want to build trust. That's been an industry talking point. Are they ever going to succeed in building trust? A starting point would be full and transparent communication — including when that is bad news like a spill."
Among recent spills:
• More than 7,260 gallons of crude oil and condensate spilled into the Poudre River a half mile east of Windsor, upriver from Greeley, after spring waters hit Noble Energy facilities along the river. A broken valve on a 12,600-gallon storage tank may have caused the spill, which Noble reported on June 20.
• On June 30, a KP Kauffman Co. flowline leak of crude oil, between 42 and 210 gallons, reached an irrigation ditch used to capture flood irrigation water for reuse. Emergency crews used booms to keep oil from flowing into the Lower Boulder irrigation ditch. Kauffman crews were excavating contaminated soil and replaced the leaky flowline.
• About 294 gallons of oil spilled from Bonanza Creek facilities on Colorado State Land Board property that serves as wildlife habitat, 6.7 miles east of Kersey about 900 feet from the South Platte River. "A separator dumpline" split open, causing the spill. Bonanza crews used vacuum trucks to suck up 210 gallons. Company officials said none reached the river. The oil contaminated groundwater and Bonanza crews were excavating soil from a hole about 90 feet by 35 feet by 6 feet deep.
"We get periodic reports from people but we don't get a lot of detail. ... I don't know that there is a system (for communicating with residents), other than what I have taken on as my responsibility when I see a situation," said Dan Dean, Mead town manager, who also serves as the COGCC's local designee.
When he received an e-mailed notice of a spill near the Mead Grandview Estates subdivision in June, Dean relayed it to the head of a homeowner association.
Companies such as Anadarko often communicate with the government, he said. "They ought to communicate as much as possible. They have a responsibility to keep people informed."
After the oil spill east of Windsor into the Poudre River, "we got a call that it was a slow leak, that there was no risk, no harm," town manager Kelly Arnold said.
If a spill threatened residents, local firefighters likely would be at the scene and would have protocols for notifying residents, Arnold said.
A state natural resources communications official said that after the Poudre spill, he sent out a notice to news organizations before reporters learned of the spill.
The API standards for communicating with communities, issued this month, reflect a broad effort to encourage companies to open up channels of communication directly with communities — starting long before drilling begins.
API's standards recommend meetings to introduce company officials and establishing channels with the goal of sharing information better when the need arises. API standards aren't binding but reflect three years of work by industry leaders to develop best practices.
"Spill response is governed by specific federal and state guidelines," and it wouldn't be appropriate for API standards to supplant those, API spokesman Zachary Cikanek said.
API "encourages companies to prepare an emergency response plan that includes communications strategies for addressing community concerns in the event of an emergency," Cikanek said. "The specific items that should be included are determined by state and federal laws."
Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/finleybruce
Staff writer Zahira Torres contributed to this report.