In March 2009, a Western Slope oil company filed an application for a state air emissions permit for its wastewater treatment facility. On Thursday, state regulators got around to holding a hearing on that permit — about almost 13 years behind schedule.
“We are asking for the same thing we asked for 13 years ago, state oversight,” Leslie Robinson, executive director of the grassroots Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, said in an interview before the hearing.
The facility, outside the town of Parachute, handles the wastewater coming out of oil and gas wells and consists of dozens of tanks, five ponds and flares for burning off pollutants.
“If this facility were proposed on the Front Range it is not hard to believe it would be stalled for years if approved at all,” Robinson said during the state Air Quality Control Commission hearing held on Zoom. “Open pits would not be approved on the Front Range.”
The Parachute treatment plant, however, is not alone. There are 60 other facilities past the deadline for new or renewed permits. The backlog has included landfills, factories, tank batteries and compressor stations.
“The state has not prioritized these permits,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “They are supposed to be the icing on the cake that ensures a facility operates to a ‘T’.”
The Parachute plant, built by the Williams Co. and now run by Terra Energy Partners, “is and has been a major source of numerous harmful air pollutants,” the state Air Pollution Control Division stipulated as part of a lawsuit.
The lawsuit for failing to issue the permit within the required 18 months required under federal rules was filed March 15 in Garfield County District Court by the WildEarth Guardians. The APCD issued a draft permit — the subject of Thursday’s hearings — March 31.
The lawsuit is one of four brought by WildEarth Guardians, along with the Center for Conservation Biology, covering eight delinquent permits at four facilities.
The highest profile of these offending facilities was the Suncor Refinery, in Commerce City, whose permit expired in 2012. WildEarth Guardians also sued the APCD for failing to address the expired permit and in January a district court judge in Adams County ordered the division to issue a permit “without delay.”
The division had argued that the delay was a function of the fact that the refinery is “the most complex industrial facility in Colorado,” and that the agency has struggled to adequately staff the permitting program.
“Neither of these assertions act to provide a defense to the claims being made in this case,” Judge Teri Vasquez said in her order.
Since the end of 2021, APCD has whittled the late list to 61 from more than 100. “Because of recent legislative investments, we are meaningfully improving our ability to tackle the backlog that has accrued largely because of being short staffed,” Leah Schleifer, a division spokeswoman, said in an email.
The regulatory order in question is called a Title V permit, under the federal Clean Air Act, and at issue is whether it is just a piece of bureaucratic record keeping or fundamental to ensuring that facilities do not pollute.
For many facilities, air emission limits are set in other federal or state permits, such as permits to construct a new factory or oil and gas tank battery. So those are in place even if a Title V permit is not issued.
“The state sees it as formality, but the Title V permit brings all the requirements into one place” said Robert Ukeiley, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It sets out how emissions will be monitored.”
“It is a source-specific bible on air pollution requirements” for each facility, Ukeiley said.
The Title V process also requires Environmental Protection Agency review. “The federal oversight is important as we saw in EPA’s objections to the Suncor permit,” Ukeiley said.
When APCD did issue a new permit for the refinery the EPA told the state it was going to object to parts of the pollution control plan because it exempted three flaring systems that burn off emissions.
Environmental groups are also disputing the terms of the Title V permit issued for Terra Energy’s Parachute treatment plant.
The main points of contention are the five evaporation ponds at the facility. When oil and gas comes out of a well, it is mixed water that has been trapped in the rock for thousands of years. This wastewater is often heavy in salts and metals and traces of hydrocarbons.
There is also so-called flowback water from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which can be treated and recycled for future fracking jobs.
The water is separated from the oil and gas — Western Slope wells produce mainly gas — and treated in a facility like the one near Parachute.
Shawn Brennan, Terra Energy Partners manger for environment, health and safety, said in hearing comments that his company is “confident that this facility can be operated in compliance as the permit as is written.”
Brennan said the facility was integral to the recycling and reuse of water in its operations.
The treatment facility has precise emission limits for each piece of equipment or “point source,” but the fumes of volatile organic chemicals coming off the ponds are categorized by Terra Energy and in the draft permit as “fugitive emissions.”
“Most sources of fugitive emissions get a free pass,” Nichols said. “If the emissions can be captured and go through a smokestack they are regulated.”
“Fugitive emissions can be much greater than the threshold for a major source permit,” Nichols said. “But as far as the division is concerned, they don’t count.”
At the Terra Energy’s’ Parachute facility the maximum emissions level, according to a APCD inspection report, is 755 tons of volatile organics a year — 556 tons of which is in fugitive emissions.
In comments filed with the APCD, WildEarth Guardians contends that there are technologies — such as floating covers and gas collection systems — that can be used to capture and manage pond emissions.
“Terra Energy already has one pond covered at the Parachute facility, so they have shown it can be done,” Nichols said.
The Terra Energy ponds are, however, just the tip of a bigger problem, Robinson said. “About 12,000 wells have been drilled on the Western Slope in the last decade, and a half of all these wells produce wastewater, which is dumped into hundreds of these ponds,” she said. “The real question is what is the cumulative impact?”