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Spoiled oil hurts us all

Ken Neubecker

It seems like the oil and gas folks just can’t stand behaving like everyone else. The industry has twice lost their special exemption from Storm Water Discharge regulations in Colorado. The industry had been exempt from these regulations nationally by the EPA. No other developer is given such special treatment. Last March, the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) ruled 7 to 2 that there was enough evidence and need to require that this industry comply with these basic water quality protection standards.

They didn’t like that. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) filed suit with the WQCC to have the ruling overturned. The industry lobby in Washington was hard at work, too, and had their special status re-stated through the 2005 Energy Policy Act.

This prompted COGA to request a re-hearing of the March ruling with the WQCC. That hearing was held a couple weeks ago and this time the WQCC ruled unanimously that the evidence and need to uphold the March ruling was there.

Nothing had changed. Gravity still works with storm water on drilling pads just as they do on a new home site.

But the lobbyists back in Washington were hard at work even while Colorado was deciding that pollution from oil and gas activities is just as bad as from anywhere else.

Now the EPA is proposing to change its rules and definitions of pollution to help the ‘beleaguered’ energy industry recover their special status. The new proposal would do two things, both aimed at hindering the ability of states like Colorado from protecting the quality of their waters.

First, the new proposal would explicitly prohibit a state like Colorado from being able to require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit to control polluted runoff from storm water on oil and gas sites. Any oil and gas “site.” These aren’t just well pads. They are miles of roads, pipelines, compressor stations and any other construction site built for the development of this public resource.

The polluted runoff will still be there, contaminating Colorado streams and rivers, despite any rule change from Washington.

Not satisfied with this they are also proposing that sediment be removed from the list of defined contaminants. Wonderful! We’ll just get that annoying sediment problem resolved with the wave of a bureaucratic pen, undoubtedly filled with a lot of industry ink.

Sediment, especially sediment generated as storm water runoff from disturbed ground and construction sites is the single biggest water quality problem in Colorado, and one of the worst across the country. Now the EPA is planning to roll back reality itself simply by redefining it.

The new change would tie the hands of private citizens as well. Whole hillsides could wash into a stream from oil and gas activities, and if the EPA or the state doesn’t want to do anything, there is absolutely nothing that you or I or the landowner could do.

This action by the EPA is outrageous, but hardly surprising. Under the current administration if there is a law, a ruling or any other bothersome stipulation you can either ignore it, rewrite it or simply interpret it in a favorable light, whether it applies or meets the original intent of the law or not.

This proposed rule change by the EPA would remove any incentive that the energy industry has to contain the contaminated runoff from their sites. EPA has proclaimed that, poof, there is no problem. And if you still think otherwise they will make it a lot harder for you to do anything about it. This goes far beyond the mandate and intent of Congress, replacing meaningful protection with nothing more than a polite half-hearted request.

I would like to politely request that EPA do what it’s supposed to do and protect the legitimate interests and environmental reality of the American people, not the status fantasies of a single spoiled industry. VT

Ken Neubecker writes about water and the environment for The Vail Trail. He can be reached for comment at eagleriver@sopris.net.


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