Marion Energy Inc. has ceased operation of its natural gas wells in the Scofield-Clear Creek area as a result a leak of "production water" that entered the county's surface watershed.
The State Divisions of Water Quality and Oil, Gas and Mining have issued closure orders and notices of violations, but the company had voluntarily stopped the wells in July when the leak was discovered in Ragman Canyon about 12 miles south of Scofield.
Production water is deep ground water that comes to the surface with natural gas.
It cannot be introduced into surface waters because it contains salts and other contaminants leached from the ground. It must be either evaporated in lined ponds or reinjected back underground.
The company had gotten a condition use permit from the county last summer to pipe the water from the mountains to a non-operating well on Alpine School District property. It had been returned underground at that well.
However, on July 3, county public lands director Rex Sacco was driving through Ragman Canyon and noticed water gushing out of a manhole in the middle of the dirt road. He said he noticed a chemical smell from the water and notified Forest Service and Department of Environmental Quality officials in Price. They notified Marion Energy, which then shut down operations.
Chemical analysis showed that the water was somewhat "salty" but not dangerously high in organic contaminants associated with natural gas.
At a hearing before the county planning and zoning commission last Tuesday, Marion vice presidents Doug Endsley and Keri Clarke explained that the production water that leaked was apparently diluted by runoff.
The ground water typically measures between 5,500 and 7,000 parts per million of dissolved solids, while the leakage was measured at under 4,000 ppm.
In an interview Monday, Endsley said the leak apparently was initiated by a crimp in the pipeline caused by ground movement.
That caused a sudden pressure surge in the pipe that opened a pressure release valve. Ordinarily only air with a little bit of water should escape before the valve closes, but in this case the valve stayed open, Endsley explained. Either it was the flow of water or corrosion that kept the valve from closing.
Endsley estimated that about 60,000 gallons may have escaped.
The Division of Oil, Gas and Mining has scheduled a hearing for Oct. 26 on the matter.
Meanwhile, the planning commission tabled a discussion on recommending possible suspension of the firm's conditional use permit. "The experts are not us," commented member Don Torgerson. He said it would be better to see what the Department of Environmental Quality, DOGM and the Forest service recommend after hearings and investigation.