Residents fret about oilfield dumping plan for Bighorn River

By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.,

Residents downstream of Boysen Reservoir — where state officials want to OK the discharge of tons of oilfield pollutants — say they weren’t given adequate notice and time to comment on the plan.

At least six groups — two local governments, two conservation groups and two agricultural interests — have drafted or sent letters to the Wyoming Department of Environment Quality challenging its timetable to approve the permit, according to copies of the letters obtained by WyoFile. The permit would allow oilfield operators led by Aethon Energy to discharge 8.27 million gallons of tainted water a day into Alkali and Badwater creeks.

The flows of “produced water” from the Moneta Divide oil and gas field would run to the Boysen Reservoir where 2,161 tons a month of total dissolved solids, including more than 1,000 tons each of sodium and sulfate would be diluted. Releases from the Boysen Dam would flow into the Wind, then Bighorn rivers, which supply drinking water to the towns of Thermopolis and Basin and feed at least nine major canals or ditches irrigating at least 70,575 acres of crop and range land.

WyoFile obtained copies of letters or draft letters to the DEQ from the Town of Thermopolis, Hot Springs County, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Hot Springs County Farm Bureau Federation and the Hot Springs Conservation District. Most seek public meetings and an extension of the April 17 comment deadline.

“It concerns me greatly that as a municipality that depends on the water flowing from Boysen Reservoir down the Big Horn River for our potable water, we are just now becoming aware of an April 17 deadline on a comment period,” Thermopolis Mayor Mike Chimenti wrote the DEQ in a letter dated April 2. “As the first municipality below the proposed discharge point, one would have expected us to be notified of said permit request and comment period.”

The state agency acknowledged that it has received letters seeking an extension of the comment deadline and seeking public meetings, said Keith Guille, the DEQ’s spokesman. “We will be making a decision this week,” he wrote in an email Thursday.

The agency posted a public notice on its website March 15 proposing the authorization of the discharge permit. “The proposed permits [the notice referenced several permits] contain limitations and conditions that will assure that the state’s surface water quality will be protected,” the website reads. That includes the Class 1 water — the most protected — in the river below the dam.

The notice said persons or groups can request a public meeting in writing, but that the request “shall indicate the interest of the party and the reasons why a meeting is warranted.”

One reason is “the potential impacts this permit could have on our community,” Hot Springs Conservation District Chairwoman Sonja Becker wrote in a letter to the DEQ. She echoed Chimenti’s surprise in learning of the proposed permit through WyoFile reporting and described her own “consternation” regarding the issue.

DEQ’s failure to contact her district directly amounted to an “oversight” that merits a 120-day comment deadline extension, Becker wrote. She also asked for a public meeting that would allow residents “to get informed and make educated comments.”

The Bureau of Reclamation built Boysen Dam mainly to supply agricultural irrigators with a steady supply of water, wrote Paul Ward, president of the Hot Springs County Farm Bureau Federation, in a letter to the DEQ also obtained by Wyofile. The reservoir is “the only reason we as ag producers have been able to survive the good/bad years fluctuation in our arid climate here in Wyoming,” the letter reads.

The pollutants “might be considered a threat to our source of water for our irrigated land in the Big Horn Basin,” the Farm Bureau Federation letter reads. It seeks a comment deadline extension and a public meeting.

“This is a very busy season for the ag community with calving, lambing and planting right at hand,” Ward wrote, “but we will take the time to meet with you to discuss this alarming situation as we see it.”

The permit would authorize operators of the Moneta Divide oil and gas field, which is expected to expand to 4,250 wells, to discharge what amounts to 25-acre feet a day, according to calculations made by WyoFile. That water could flow from the wells north of Shoshoni 40 miles downstream to Boysen Reservoir.

DEQ officials have said the discharges would be within allowable limits. Some produced water — fluid pumped from oil and gas wells — would be treated at an expanded processing plant known as the Neptune Water Treatment Facility before being sent downstream to Boysen.

Most people looking at the proposed discharge weights will say “oh my God, that looks like a lot,” Bill DiRienzo, DEQ’s discharge program manager, told WyoFile last month. But when compared to the background levels of contaminants in the water, “it’s not really,” he told WyoFile.

In the reservoir, the DEQ contemplates a 300-foot-long “mixing zone” where pollutants would be more concentrated before they are diluted in the 20-mile by five-mile, 802,000 acre-foot reservoir.

Compared to existing background levels, the proposed discharges into the rivers “are small fractions,” DiRienzo has said. “They would be lost in the normal background fluctuation. That would happen through mixing in Boysen.”

As an example, the draft permit recognizes an average of nine milligrams a liter of chloride in the Wind River today. The state’s anti-degradation target is 12 milligrams a liter and the permit would allow a maximum of 16 milligrams.

“We would not expect more than 12,” DiRienzo told WyoFile. Guille put it another way.

“With the limits that were set for this draft permit we wanted to ensure they do not impact further the Wind River as well as Boysen,” Guille told WyoFile in late March. “That’s what’s important. You will not see that impact.”

In requesting a comment extension and public meeting, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Powder River Basin Resource Council cited “growing public interest in this matter and potential impacts to recreation and aquatic uses, as well as to downstream communities and irrigators.”

Another issue looms as well, according to the conservation groups.

“We have reason to believe that the discharge may also include flow back water containing chemicals utilized in drilling and well completion activities,” the groups’ letter reads. “Yet the proposed permit contains no information regarding the potential presence of these chemicals in the waste stream nor does it discuss pollution controls that should be implemented to minimize the adverse effects of such chemicals, some of which may include known endocrine disrupt[o]rs.”

The groups seek meetings in several communities, both above and below the reservoir, and on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The DEQ discharge permit is one of several authorizations operators of the Moneta Divide oil and gas field need for the proposed expansion. Operators also require permission from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is preparing a draft environmental impact statement on the project.

In addition to irrigation and drinking water, communities below Boysen Reservoir have enjoyed a surge in recreation use as anglers have discovered the fishing potential in the Bighorn River.

“We’ve got three dogs in the fight,” said Lee Campbell, a retired engineer and former county planner who lives in Thermopolis. Because his communities use the river’s flows as potable water and also benefit from recreational activities, its interests are larger than “the little Chihuahuas to the north,” — Washakie and Big Horn Counties — where the Bighorn continues its course.

“We don’t have the resources, the technical expertise in our little county to address the issues,” he said. “To turn in really good comments … we just don’t have that capability.

“It’s literally impossible for us to do it,” he said of addressing the hundreds of pages of technical information presented in DEQ documents. “We’re going to need some help.”


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