In June 2013, a pipeline rupture near Price released at least 85 barrels of "production water" into a stream, one of many modest spills the state has endured in recent years associated with oil and gas operations.
Even though the natural-gas producer failed to report the incident to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and it took a few days to stop the leak, the division settled the matter with a $3,200 fine and no admission of wrongdoing on the company's part.
"The impacts to the environment were minor and short-lived, and they have shown they are making an effort to replace and improve the system and respond quickly to any releases," a DWQ report states. "The releases do not appear to be the result of avoiding any expense related to maintenance and repair. They appear to be the result of an aging system that is being worked on and improved as it can be."
However, the state personnel took few steps to assess the environmental damage or to corroborate the company's claim that the spill was confined to 85 barrels.
"A lot of trust has to go into the producers because we have no way to gauge [spill volumes]," DWQ Director Walt Baker said. "It's not an exact science. We were able to take samples there. It wasn't that we were bereft of information."
Around the time of the accident, the Gordon Creek wells were yielding larger-than-expected volumes of water, which impeded gas production, according to the company's financial disclosures last year. Production water represents one of the industry's largest environmental challenges, posing a huge disposal obligation. This water is laced with hydrocarbons, salts and chemicals that are harmful to ground and surface water, and its disposal is highly regulated.
Still, a review of the state's spill database shows that production water routinely escapes into the environment — from pipelines and trucking accidents to well blowouts.
On Nov. 13, for example, a truck carrying production water from Fidelity's Big Flat oil field near Moab rolled on switchbacks on State Road 313, discharging about 100 barrels into Seven Mile Wash. On Nov. 6, a pipeline rupture near Myton in eastern Utah released 110 barrels into a dry wash. In an earlier instance, a truck driver was caught deliberately discharging the contents of his tanker onto the ground.
Yet the impacts associated with production water have gone largely unnoticed by the public.
"When we look at other states, you are talking about hundreds of spills. New Mexico has 700 to 1,000 a year that affect surface and groundwater," said Bruce Baizel of the Colorado-based Oil & Gas Accountability Project. "All these little spills cumulatively add up. Every time we poke into it we discover it's a big deal. They underreport what they spill because no one is checking and they misreport what they spill."
Because the Gordon Creek fine is below $25,000 it does not need approval from the Water Quality Board, but it is open for public comment until Monday. The firm is required to submit a report to Baker detailing efforts to prove and ensure the integrity of the disposal line.
Baker conceded a year is too long to resolve such a straightforward case and said he hopes recent efforts to coordinate responses and information gathering among state agencies will streamline enforcement.
He convened a spills working group last year in response to Utah's increased oil production. The purpose was to determine the best way to "triage" the agency's response to the hundreds of spills crossing Baker's desk each year.
The agency cannot pursue every spill, he said, deciding instead which ones warrant an enforcement action.
"It's a matter of magnitude and impact," Baker said.
The Gordon Creek spill was detected June 10, 2013, after an employee noticed an unusual drop in flow pressures. He drove around the field to investigate, discovered the rupture and shut off all the producing wells in an effort to isolate as many flow lines as he could, according to the DWQ report.
But the line continued leaking and production water reached Bob Wright Creek, which feeds the Price River about 10 miles downstream. The employee called service companies but none could come and repair the line until June 12. It wasn't until 5 p.m. June 11 that company managers notified the Utah Division of Oil and Gas and Mining, which relayed the information two days later to the Department of Environmental Quality. The line was fixed by June 13.
By the time a DEQ engineer was on the scene, the line was repaired and buried.
Within two weeks, water-quality regulators issued a notice of violation for alleged discharge of a pollutant into a waterway. State law allows fines of up to $10,000 a day, but in this case regulators agreed to a fine of $800 for each day the line leaked.
DWQ credited Gordon Creek for promptly shutting off the wells, contacting DOGM and trying to get the line repaired as quickly as possible.