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Courtesy Skip Ambrose Migratory birds rest on an evaporation pond operated near Cisco by Danish Flats Environmental Services, which processes wastewater from oil and gas wells. Hydrocarbons on these ponds not only pollutes the air, but can harm these birds, which are protected under federal law.
Utah grapples with toxic water from oil and gas industry

Grand County evaporation ponds avoided air quality regulation for years, documents show.

First Published Aug 24 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 24 2014 03:54 pm

A massive stream of wastewater tainted with hydrocarbons has been flowing into Utah from oil and gas mining on Colorado’s West Slope.

Evaporation ponds used to process the contaminated water in Grand County have released tons of toxic chemicals into the air since April 2008.

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But the Colorado company running the 14-pond facility operated without a Utah air-quality permit for more than six years, public documents show, while providing officials faulty data that underreported its emissions and exaggerated the efficiency of its emission-control equipment.

Danish Flats Environmental Services finally secured a permit earlier this month and agreed to pay a reduced $50,000 fine for its failure to seek one in a timely manner.

The Danish Flats experience reflects a larger threat to air quality posed by wastewater gushing out of Utah’s increasingly busy oil patch. The permit issued by the state Division of Air Quality (DAQ) for Danish Flats was the agency’s first associated with evaporation ponds, and it’s now examining other evaporation disposal sites in Utah.

Danish Flats, located north of Cisco, at first avoided regulation by asserting its emissions were "de minimis," or too small to require a permit.

But a later, more reliable analysis indicated the company’s emissions were not negligible, but were instead tens and possibly hundreds of tons a year — revealing the site was a major emission source for hazardous air pollutants and volatile organic compounds.

"They were out of compliance for many years, but they hung on debating with DAQ over how to estimate emissions. It was clear they were never a de minimis source, ever," said Chris Baird, a former member of the Grand County Council and Planning Commission who is now executive director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council.

Danish Flats operations manager Justin Spaeth declined to discuss the company without his engineering team and has not yet arranged such an interview.


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Spreading ponds »There are 15 pond "farms" operating in the Uinta Basin to handle the liquid waste, known in the industry as "produced water." All are smaller than Danish Flats — Utah’s largest complex of such ponds — and each has claimed its emissions are too small to require a permit.

Six are on tribal land and under federal jurisdiction. Of the nine overseen by DAQ, two have recently conceded their emissions may exceed the de minimis standard and have begun the permit process, according to agency director Bryce Bird.

Oil and gas operators prefer disposing of their produced water by injecting it back into the earth. But that’s not always possible, and millions of barrels wind up in evaporation ponds after equipment separates out hydrocarbon condensates — a light, valuable fuel.

The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, or DOGM, regulates the handling of this waste. But DAQ is now monitoring the air-quality impacts. Its permit for Danish Flats gives the company another 18 months to install a flare and related equipment to capture and burn pollutants — deemed the "best available" technology for controlling emissions.

Bird said DAQ believes the $50,000 fine is sufficient to secure compliance with state requirements in the future.

"This is a new area of regulation; we are just working through the rest of the companies in the state," Bird said. "Until we asked questions and started pressing the issue with Danish Flats, maybe they didn’t know" the full extent of their emissions.

Got antifreeze? »The largest single hazardous air pollutant emitted by Danish Flats came as a surprise.

Instead of the usual petroleum-based suspects, it turned out to be methanol, a chemical industry uses as antifreeze and a fracking agent.

Categorized as both a hazardous pollutant and a volatile organic compound, methanol is a form of alcohol. Unlike condensates, it is highly soluble in water, so it isn’t separated out by processing.

Documents indicate that some of the company’s estimates of its emissions were based on readings from summa canisters, perforated devices that contain activated carbon that absorbs volatile compounds.

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