Methane Mining Churns up Murky Water Issue

Coal deposits were the economic wellspring for the development of Las Animas County.

TRINIDAD, Colorado — Coal deposits were the economic wellspring for the development of Las Animas County.

Today, the methane gas being mined from even deeper coal deposits presents a greater conundrum: What should be done with millions of gallons of water brought to the surface in the drilling process?

The issue was front and center at the 2005 Arkansas River Basin Water Forum Thursday. More than 125 people are at the two-day conference at the Quality Inn.

"Coal bed methane production has created a great economic boom in the county, but there are issues associated with it," said Jeris Danielson, a former state water engineer who is now the general manager of the Purgatoire River Water Conservation District.

Water is a by-product of methane production, explained Jay Still, of Pioneer Natural Resources, one of several companies prospecting for methane in the hills west of Trinidad.

He explained that coal acts like "a sponge" to absorb the methane gas. When the water is removed from the deep, unmined deposits 700 to 4,000 feet underground, the methane is released.

"There's a lot of water," Still said. "Enough to keep a well producing for 30 years at low rates."

Still said Pioneer, which merged with Evergreen Resources last year, discharges about 50 percent of the water into the Trinidad Reservoir supply system, replaces 25 percent of water of lesser quality back into deep wells and evaporates the remaining 25 percent.

"It's better than EPA drinking water standards in everything but clarity or taste," Still said.

But the ranchers who own the land under which the methane lies aren't convinced the water, or the way it's handled, is safe, said Gopa Ross, of Do It Right Las Animas County. She said the concerned citizens group represents more than 70 people in the area. She said the group does not have access to records about water quality testing.

"Landowners want to know their water is safe," Ross said. "Also, we're looking at 10 billion gallons of water wasted over five years and we want to know where that water went."

Two companies, including Pioneer, are operating on her ranch near Weston and create problems with dust, traffic and noise, Ross said.

Warren McDonald, of the Spanish Peaks-Purgatoire River Co., questioned whether the water was "wasted" as Ross claimed.

"If the water tests OK and it runs down the arroyos into Lake Trinidad, it's a benefit," McDonald said.

Still said Pioneer sends about 2.4 million gallons a day into state waterways and said the water of lesser quality is injected deeper into the ground than the levels of wells in the area. He added there is no evidence that the injections cause earthquakes, which have been reported with greater frequency in recent years in Las Animas County.

Kathleen Reilly, of the Colorado Water Quality Division, said the state relies on company reports for water quality testing, but does some sampling to see if company reports are "on target." She said those reports are available to the public.

Asked how often the state samples, Reilly admitted, "Not often enough."

Danielson said the law on water rights is unclear when it comes to coal bed methane groundwater.

"The Division 2 water court in Pueblo ruled it is tributary groundwater," Danielson said. However, that decision was not appealed, so the legal theory still is untested. "The argument could be made that this is a by-product of producing wells, not groundwater."

Reed Dils, of Trout Unlimited in Chaffee County, asked if adequate steps were in place to assure that aftereffects of methane drilling were dealt with "20 years down the road."

"The (evaporation) pits attract mosquitoes. . . . The use of our wells is another concern," Ross replied. "Is the water going to be of the quality it needs to be?"

Reilly said she is not sure if the state has enough money or is charging methane producers enough in environment fees.

"We spend a lot of money. We paid $20,000 to study mosquitoes and found there aren't any because there's no vegetation around the pits," Still said. He said the company provides larvicide for those who are still not convinced. "If we mess up on any issue, it could put our company out of business."

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