Oil and gas operators north of Highway 20-26 east of Riverton have been producing salty water and pouring it down a seasonal stream called Badwater Creek for 55 years.
But with the Moneta Divide project, a planned 4,000 well expansion by Aethon Energy, production could offer up more than a million barrels of briny water per day and send a mixture of produced and treated water down the 20-mile stream that feeds into Boysen Reservoir during parts of the year.
Aethon’s expansion of oil and gas development in the area advanced Thursday with the release of a mandatory environmental review by the Bureau of Land Management – the majority of the project is on federal land. But the project has garnered most attention of late over a state water permit, allowing increased volumes of salt water in Badwater.
The state and energy company say they’ve studied the proposed volumes, and the proposed concentrations of chloride will not harm Boysen or downstream waters.
Environmental groups and some locals, however, chart the flow of water as it continues from the reservoir to the Wind River and eventually the Big Horn River. The idea that more salt water won’t matter doesn’t make sense to them.
“Supposedly Boysen is big enough to handle this level of pollution,” said Ellen Sue Blakey of Thermopolis. “And what could possibly go wrong? To many of us in the region, this is a Flint, Michigan moment waiting to happen.”
Badwater Creek is classified as a good water source, the second-highest classification in the state. But it’s been far beyond chloride limits for that type of stream for decades. The permit to discharge produced water from oil and gas development into Badwater predates the Clean Water Act of 1972. No one really knows what the water quality was like before.
The state has tried to increase the threshold for fluoride pollution in Badwater to a more reasonable level given current high levels of salt and other minerals and contaminants. The proposal would, however, set allowances that are much higher than standard for that class of stream.
The Environmental Protection Agency blocked this attempt last year. The EPA became involved because though Wyoming has its own water quality standards that are in keeping with federal limits, the state can also set unique standards for individual sites. That’s what it is suggesting for Badwater Creek.
But the state needs approval from the federal agency.
When Wyoming regulators first proposed a change in chloride concentration, the EPA considered it and asked the state to take more time and collect more data before it increased the volumes on Aethon’s permit.
The EPA has recently weighed in again. In an April 5 letter, the agency’s Denver team said the permit raised “complex technical issues” and would require more time to review.
The state has granted that time, which was also requested by members of the public, and is holding two public meetings next month.
What the state argues, despite fears about the discharge permit’s consequences, is that the change doesn’t matter. Badwater Creek has had bad water for a long time, said Bill DiRienzo, the discharge program manager for the Department of Environmental Quality.
“That’s the water that’s been going down there for 60 years,” he said. “There is a standard for … basic chloride that they don’t meet and has never been met in that stream.”
And increase in volume, according to the state’s estimates, will not change the levels that exist today, not in the stream and not downstream, he said.
The state’s analysis considered what would happen to the Wind River – the point at which the Boysen flows into that first-class water source – if all of the produced water allowed in Badwater under the new permit were to reach that point downstream, said Keith Guille, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality.
“It’s fair to say that not all that water will (reach Wind River), but that’s beside the point. We are looking at as if it all went there,” he said. “Will the quality of water be affected? Through the analysis and the numbers we’ve done, no.”
But there’s a difference of opinion as to whether the state’s assessment is accurate. Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, says it’s not.
“The argument that the solution to pollution is dilution is discredited fantasy,” Molvar said.
There’s a threshold at which too much salt water will be going into these waterways, and the state hasn’t provided enough assurance that it knows that threshold. The natural salts in the Boysen and other waterways increase the need for concern, Molvar said.
“You are going to add artificial pollution to the natural level of salts that are already there. At what point are you going to kill off the trout downstream?” he added.
Dan Heilig of the Wyoming Outdoor Council was still digging into the details of the draft environmental impact statement on the Moneta Divide project that came out Thursday, which covers the development’s impact to protected sage grouse habitat, mule deer habitat and other concerns including water impacts.
But he said his group’s concerns remained high regarding the water discharge permit, despite state assurances.
There are more than a dozen state discharge permits into the surface waters in the area, from produced water permits to wastewater treatment plant releases in nearby towns. There are also more than a dozen from oil and gas operations permitted by the EPA, which oversees the release of pollutants into the waterways on the Wind River Reservation.
It’s that accumulation of tainted water pouring into these surface waters that troubles Heilig.
“It’s essential to understand the effects of that.”
At one point in the Moneta Divide story, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission blocked then-developer Encana from getting permits for two injection wells that would have pumped the produced water down into the aquifer.
The commission, in a reversal of an earlier decision, decided that the company hadn’t proven that the salty water wouldn’t contaminate the surrounding aquifer in the Madison formation.
Aethon has injection wells included as part of its propose plan for the Moneta Divide and the firm currently has 5 applications for aquifer exemptions with the state – which allow salty and sometimes chemical-laced water to be pumped into a designated area in an aquifer.
One permit has been approved by both the state and the EPA. One has been approved by the state but not yet by the EPA and three are still under consideration by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, according to commission staff.
For Heilig, those injection well rejections are a warning. If the water wasn’t safe to inject into the Madison aquifer, why is it safe to release on the surface, he asked.
“The concern seems to be amplified now.”
Environmental groups including the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Powder River Basin Resource Council have experts digging into the technicalities of the permit.
Aethon’s vice president of development, Tom Nelson, said the proposed permit from DEQ just maintains existing production.
“The proposed discharge permit will allow Aethon to safely discharge water that has historically been discharged since the early 1960s,” he wrote in an email. “Aethon will be required to fully treat produced water volumes in the event development plans are pursued as outlined in the EIS.”
Nelson said the Aethon production plan would fall short of the more than 1 million barrels per day of produced water considered by the BLM. But even at its highest production levels, the company would likely have to treat the majority of the water being released, he said.
The Moneta Divide project – as first proposed by Encana in 2012 – covers more than 300,000 acres of largely federally managed land. It could generate up to $71 million in annual federal royalties, $57.6 million in annual severance taxes and $70 million in local county taxes, according to BLM estimates.
The BLM analyzed the 4,250 well proposal at 325 wells drilled per year for 15 years.
The result could be around 1 million barrels of produced water every day. In 2015, Encana built a treatment facility to dilute produced water with treated water in anticipation of the increased volumes from the development.
Nelson said the amount of treated water would have to increase if the volumes from Moneta were to increase.
The company plans to reuse some water for production and possibly inject water into the ground, as well as release it on the surface, Nelson said in a previous interview.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is holding two public meetings on the water permit due to public concerns, one in Riverton and one in Thermopolis.
And the public is geared up to speak, fearing that the small communities that rely on these waterways lack the political clout to affect change.
For Blakey, of Thermopolis, the issues is one for agriculture and wildlife, ranching, and public health. It’s not about restricting the oil business so much as making sure treatment for water impacted by the oil and gas industry doesn’t someday fall on small towns that can’t afford it, she said.
“I am concerned that the turmoil in the national environmental agencies may enter in the picture, as well as the need to develop business opportunities in the state, and the need to promote national economic growth,” she said. “I do believe the Aethon expansion needs more transparency for our citizens.”
Local municipalities like Thermopolis as well as agricultural groups and conservationists have all asked the state for more time on this permit, raising concerns, according to reporting by WyoFile.
Guille said the debate occurring over this permit is the point of the public review process.
“I think those are fair questions they are asking,” he said of concerns and investigations into cumulative effects, concentration levels and downstream impacts. “This is the type of feedback that we want. That’s what we are looking for.”