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Katherman: Pollution of the Madison aquifer is not harmless
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Katherman: Pollution of the Madison aquifer is not harmless

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Maria Katherman

Maria Katherman

Disposing of contaminated produced water is a continuing and unsolved problem for the oil and gas industry. Now Aethon Energy, a Dallas, TX investment company, has permission to ignore clean water rules which protect the potable water in the Madison aquifer. They propose solving 0.5% of their produced-water problem by injecting contaminated “water” into the Madison from their oil and gas field near Moneta, between Casper and Riverton.

The obvious solution is to decontaminate or “treat” this water until it might be fit for irrigation or other beneficial uses. That, of course, costs money, time and permanent employee salaries with which Aethon would prefer not to be burdened. Their accountants have concluded that treating produced water from the Moneta field is not “economically feasible.” In other words, while the price of gas and oil is low, cleaning their mess cuts too far into their profit. Now the State of Wyoming will subsidize their operation, donating to them the use of the Madison aquifer as their sewer.

This is an unacceptable “solution” to the problem they create. Why should Wyoming sacrifice the Madison aquifer around Moneta so that this Texas company can make more money?

During a long hearing before the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission, Aethon’s well-paid consultants went to great lengths to depict the proposal as harmless because no one will ever drill down deep enough to use this water. Aethon’s lawyer revealed his attitude in opening comments, when he called this sagebrush sea around Castle Gardens “what many would consider the middle of nowhere.” They did not, however, disclose what crystal ball into the long future validated this assertion, nor acknowledge the rarity of good water sources for people living in that part of our beautiful state. In Wyoming we all know how precious water is even now; we do not know what technologies nor what desperation for good water may exist seven generations* ahead.

Here, I would also like to raise a related concern: the difficulty of handling such a quantity of produced water, especially in the cold Wyoming winter.

I know about those difficulties from the years that I worked with my father, who for 40 years was the owner/operator of a federal oil and gas lease about 60 miles northeast of the Moneta field. His was a small field, four wells producing 35 barrels of oil (1,470 gallons) and more than 130,000 gallons of water per day. Dealing with that water was the hardest part of the operation by far, especially in winter.

All that water and the bit of oil from the wells was pumped out of the ground hot, and flowed into fiberglass pipes to a central complex of treatment and storage tanks. Fiberglass pipe was used because metal pipes would be quickly corroded by the toxic brew. Passing through the complex, the oil was separated (mostly) from the water and stored for truck transport to Platte Pipeline. The water was further treated to (mostly) remove contaminants before going to settling ponds to become the “headwaters” of North Casper Creek.

Any glitch in pumping or processing meant the flow stopped, and in winter that meant the water would freeze. We all know the havoc that frozen and cracked water pipes cause, but imagine if you had 130,000 gallons of water under pressure and freezing in well heads, pipes, valves and tanks! Yes, there were those times. Spills happened. Cleanup was a cold nightmare. And what to do with the now-contaminated soil?

Now take a deep breath and imagine producing and handling 56 million gallons of produced water a day and getting it to the injection well. I’m sure Aethon has resources and technology that exceed what we used on a small stripper operation. I’m also sure that their wells and infrastructure will experience glitches too, which will lead to surface spills. And I’m damn sure that water they produce will freeze occasionally and cause major spills.

What are their plans for those inevitable spills, leaks and glitches? We don’t know.

Clean water regulations protecting the Madison and other potable, fresh water sources are there precisely so we can avoid a fight every time some company finds it cheap and convenient to pollute those waters.

The rules ensure that we do not have to count on the honesty, morality or far-sightedness of companies or political appointees. Polluting potable groundwater is against the law. Period. In granting this exception, the WOGC sets a precedent that Aethon, and possibly other companies, will be allowed to rob our bank because they will make more money doing so.

* Author’s note: The Seventh Generation Principle is based on an ancient Iroquois philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.

Maria Katherman lives on a ranch in Converse County’s sagebrush sea, in the middle of nowhere. She recently coauthored A FIELD GUIDE TO THE CASPER MOUNTAIN AREA, 2nd Edition.

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