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More data needed on fracking, water

La Plata County commissioner says to look at entire process
A machine mixes sand and water, left, before it is pumped underground during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Corp. well pad near Mead. A recent U.S. Geological Survey study found that more data is needed to analyze the impact fracking has on water quality.

DENVER – La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt worries that studies about the impact hydraulic fracturing has on water do not delve deep enough into the issue.

A study released Tuesday by the U.S. Geological Survey found a lack of data available relative to impacts to water quality in areas where fracking is prevalent.

It pointed out that there is not a national water-quality monitoring program in place that focuses on gas and oil development, so more data and research is necessary to better understand the potential risks to water quality.

Lachelt, a Democrat and longtime energy industry observer, recently co-chaired a task force appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper to examine potential legislation governing the natural-gas and oil industry, with a heavy focus on fracking.

The task force advanced nine modest recommendations, including beefing up the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry in Colorado. In addition, the task force made recommendations about local and urban planning as it relates to the industry; local input on wells; and certain health, environment and nuisance issues.

But the task force stopped short of expanding local government authority to create rules and regulations that overstep the state.

Lachelt said industry health and environment issues shouldn’t focus solely on fracking.

“As I’ve said all along, much too much emphasis has been placed on fracking and not on the entire oil and gas process,” Lachelt said.

Some environmentalists blame fracking for causing pollution and health hazards. Fracking employs pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals to break open natural-gas and oil deposits underground.

Researchers say a lack of water-quality data impedes long-term analysis of watersheds with gas and oil development.

Lachelt said a host of factors should be taken into consideration, including the construction of waste storage pits, as well as the chemicals used in fracking fluids. Colorado mandates the disclosure of some fracking-fluid ingredients, but stops short of requiring the release of trade secrets.

The USGS study points out that contaminants can enter surface or groundwater through leakage from storage pits or pipes, losses from pond overflows, and spills during transport.

“There’s just thousands and thousands of cases of pits contaminating,” Lachelt said. “All pits leak. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Given the concerns, additional data could help guide legislation in Colorado.

The Colorado Legislature may pick up where the task force left off by pushing for local control bills in the second half of the legislative session.

Meanwhile, a coalition is putting together a campaign to run a ballot initiative in 2016 that would grant local government control.

“We mined the national water-quality databases from 1970 to 2010 and were able to assess long-term trends in only 16 percent of the watersheds with unconventional oil and gas resources,” said Zack Bowen, USGS scientist and principal author of the study that appears in American Geophysical Union’s Water Resources Research.

“There is not enough data available to be able to assess potential effects of oil and gas development over large geographic areas.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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