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Driller leaves mess behind

Nervous neighbors seek answers from oil, gas commission

Published July 19, 2007 at midnight

A Texas company drilling for natural gas near an area where an underground nuclear test took place in 1969 has sold its operations, leaving a string of environmental violations.

Woodlands, Texas-based Presco Inc. sold all its property and gas wells near the Project Rulison site in Garfield County to Noble Energy Production Inc. on May 8 for an undisclosed sum.

On the same day, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission cited the company for eight violations. The commission already had issued two notices of violations the week before.

Storm water and snowmelt this spring filled up several pits at the company's drilling sites, overflowing into well pads and surrounding areas.

"Sacks of chemicals and drums were floating in the pit," one violation notice stated. "Puddles of condensate and unidentified chemical residue were observed on the pad."

Noble says it was not aware of Presco's violation notices when it closed the acquisition May 8. For now, Noble is correcting the problems at its own cost. But the company said it has not determined whether it will pay any fines or penalties associated with those violations.

Neighbors who live in the area have been trying to get some answers, and until recently were ignored by the oil and gas commission.

"This always has been in the back of our minds since the late 1990s," said New Castle resident Doug DeNio. "When oil and gas companies come and go and leave a mess behind, who's held responsible?

"It seems like our worst fears are coming true."

Last year, Presco paid a $1,000 fine for discharging drilling mud into Battlement Creek, which supplies water to nearby communities. The commission has not made a decision about fines on recent violations.

"The future course of action has yet to be determined on those sites," said Brian Macke, director of the oil and gas commission.

1969 nuclear explosion

Presco surprised the industry and local community two years ago when it announced plans to drill in the Rulison area.

The 1969 nonmilitary nuclear explosion by the government in Rulison Field, eight miles southwest of Rifle in Garfield County, was intended to break shale and release natural gas trapped in the rock. A well at Rulison produced gas, but it was too radioactive.

Oil and gas companies cannot drill within a half-mile radius of Rulison Field, a buffer made official by state regulators after local residents protested against drilling because of safety concerns.

In 2005, Presco began drilling outside the buffer zone. The company hired a Chinese-built rig manned by Chinese crews to drill wells, setting off another round of protests.

Earlier this year, Presco Vice President Kim Bennetts said the company would request a commission hearing to drill within the half-mile radius.

Then, on May 8, Presco sold its properties and wells to Noble, even as the commission issued eight notices "of alleged violations" against the company.

Presco says it is not responsible for those notices.

"I am not aware of the details that occurred after Noble assumed operations," Bennetts said. "We have no responsibility in Colorado at this point."

Noble spokesman Steven Flaherty said the company assumed operations four days after the buyout and "immediately started working to improve the conditions of the properties."

"If there is a fine associated with these (violations) I am not sure who will pay," Flaherty said. "The two companies are working that out."

Asked for water test

Rulison resident Wesley Kent says he repeatedly asked a commission inspector in the past month to test his water well for possible contamination after Presco's pits overflowed and flooded well pads.

Kent's neighbor, Brady Weldon, said his family has similar concerns about contamination. The Kents and the Weldons live within the half-mile radius of Project Rulison, and there are no gas wells on their properties.

"My concern is, if no one is looking, you can't find anything," Kent said. "And no one is looking right now."

Kent said the commission didn't heed his requests for water tests until Wednesday - after the Rocky Mountain News e-mailed queries to the commission on Tuesday.

Macke said the commission received Kent's request this week, and requests for water tests are treated with high priority. An inspector was scheduled to sample Kent's water well Wednesday.

"This points out the hopelessness we feel (while) dealing with the commission and the drilling companies," Kent said. "They are not looking out for our welfare at all."

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