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tert-Butyl Alcohol
What's Up and Underground?
A Man-Made Chemical Finds Its Way into Groundwater in the Raton Basin.
Homeowners Wonder If Fracking Is to Blame.
The Raton Basin under the Colorado/New Mexico border has seen intense natural gas drilling since the early 2000s. In 2008, a homeowner near Trinidad, Colorado, who was having his water-well tested learned that it was contaminated by a chemical known as "tert-Butyl Alcohol" or "TBA." TBA is a man-made substance found in many household items. But one place it shouldn't be found? Underground and in well water.

Little is known about the health effects of ingesting TBA. Government officials have told homeowners that having it in their water is a low risk to their health—based on limited studies on lab animals. Whether it's a health risk or not, residents in the area are scratching their heads wondering how this industrial chemical got in their water, given that the only "industry" around them is the extraction of natural gas.

This story is the first in our investigative series on well contamination in the Raton Basin of southern Colorado. Listen to the next segment: "Forgotten."

Jamie: With all the controversy around fracking—in particular its effects on air and water along the Front Range, you could easily be unaware that oil & gas drilling is happening in other parts of Colorado.

Frani: An oversight that causes much consternation to people living down in the Raton Basin—a gas field that straddles the Colorado-New Mexico border where drilling activity has been high. Landowners here feel their issues with oil and gas development go largely ignored.

Jamie: So it might come as a welcome surprise to those homeowners who live just west of Trinidad, Colorado to learn that they are very much on the radar of officials—all the way up to the highest levels of state government in fact—for something very strange happening with their water.

Frani: This is a story about accidents and incidents. Accidents in that an odd chemical was found in the water—by chance.

Frani: Incidents because in that it’s connected to a well cap blowout that landed this story at the front door of John and Marilyn Dolores, about 30 miles west of Trinidad.

John Dolores: We’ve been on the property since August 1995.

Jamie: If a company drilling for gas near them back in 2006 hadn’t damaged their water well they wouldn’t have known that somehow their water was changing. Unlike many homeowners in areas of oil and gas development, the Dolores’ had baseline information proving their water was good.

Jamie: As part of a settlement to that blow out incident, the company agreed to test the Dolores's well from that point forward on a regular basis.

Frani: And this satisfied them—until it didn’t.

John: Our tester said that there was 12PPB of something that he could not identify.

LasAnimasCounty_small2Frani: That’s John Dolores. We’re sitting at his kitchen table with him and his wife Marilyn in their home near Weston, Colorado. It’s beautiful here. Their house sits in a lush meadow amidst a pine forest at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Marilyn says it’s where God got started.. and got stuck.

Rain is starting to fall as John reads from a July 2008 report he received from his hydrologist.

John: So the next time he did testing he had the lab specifically concentrate on that chemical that was showing up. And the lab identified it as tert-Butyl Alcohol.

Jamie: You probably haven't heard of tert-Butyl Alcohol or TBA, but it's in lots of things you use every day.

Frani: Shampoos.. nail polish.. perfumes.

Jamie: But also in shellac, paint removers and was a byproduct of gasoline additives.

Frani: But one place it shouldn’t be found—in water wells.

Andrew Ross: It’s something that’s definitely odd.

Jamie: That’s Andrew Ross, Senior Hydrogeologist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Andrew: It’s odd in the sense that it’s in products you can buy at the grocery store, but it shouldn’t be underground.

PullQuote_AndrewRoss_TBAFrani: Ross and the Department of Health helped John and Marilyn figure out what to do next after TBA was found in their water.

John: And we sat at this table and had a meeting about TBA and this is what they gave us when they left. This was a draft of what their plans were. Like this one here.. it says.. Help us understand the body of work that has been done on this subject... Investigate TBA standards in other states.. Investigate toxicology data for TBA in water.

Frani: But the Health Dept didn’t get back to them for about 11 months, in part because officials were pulled away to deal with the record flooding in northern Colorado last September.

Andrew: We looked at the toxicology. The toxicology led us to this point where we don’t clearly understand what the health effects are.

Jamie: That lack of clarity was expressed in a letter to the Dolores' nearly a year after that meeting. The Department stated that the effects on human health of TBA contaminated water are not clear, but the few studies that have been done on lab animals suggest possible harmful effects on kidney, bladder, and thyroid glands from ingestion of TBA. The letter goes on to state that the risk to the Dolores' from their well water was low, but Ross stated there is no consensus on what should be the standard for TBA contamination, leaving homeowners in Las Animas County scratching their heads as to whether their water is safe.

Frani: And, it still left the lingering question—how did this man-made chemical get there? Again, Andrew Ross at the Health Department.

Andrew: The second thing we did besides looking at the toxicology was to attempt to figure out the source. On its face, tert-Butyl Alcohol is a man-made industrial chemical. The only industry in western Las Animas County is coal bed methane drilling.. so.. that’s what we looked at. Pioneer Natural Resources is the predominant CBM producer in this area. There are two others, but in the area where we found tert-Butyl Alcohol it was Pioneer. They have been very helpful. They have given us everything that they have.

Frani: “Everything they had” includes telling the State Health Department about chemicals they use in drilling. According to Ross a chemical commonly used in fracking that breaks down into TBA is called tert-Butyl hydrogen peroxide.

Andrew: Pioneer says they have never used tert-Butyl hydrogen peroxide in their fracking fluids. Pioneer is unusual in the industry in that they use their own fracking recipe. They don’t use Haliburton or Schlumberger or Maverick which are the three big companies. If this was one of the big companies, they do use tert-Butyl hydrogen peroxide and it would have been an easier connection.

Jamie: So given the difficulty of pinning the source of TBA on the fracking chemicals that Pioneer disclosed, the health department tried to look at other angles. Investigating whether it came from household pipes, gasoline leaks around people’s homes, from septic systems—they even looked to see if it was somehow linked to historic coal mining but.. nothing.

Andrew: Pioneer Natural Resources spent some time looking at natural production of tert-Butyl Alcohol. They actually didn’t go much further than what’s in the literature. And the literature states that under certain conditions there are microbes that will convert isobutane which is part of petroleum into tert-Butyl Alcohol. Part of the complication here is that there isn’t a lot of isobutane in the Raton Basin. So at this point we don’t have a definitive smoking gun type source. So that’s where we’re at, and it’s a mystery.

PullQuote_AndrewRossFrani: Many homeowners don’t think this is all that mysterious. 1 in 5 wells tested have TBA, and according to the health department, a limited number of wells were tested outside of oil and gas drilling areas and those did not show TBA.

Jamie: So, one homeowner has little trouble connecting the dots.

Joel Nelson: Unfortunately these things are all operated by people.

Frani: Joel Nelson lives about six miles as the crow flies from John and Marilyn Dolores. He’s a retired environmental engineer and geologist who spent the first 8 years of his career working in oil and gas. He, too has TBA in his water. He bought his property knowing full well that the area had lots of drilling. He even has a well on his land and get royalties from it. He’s not opposed to oil and gas development—because he knows it can be done right.

Joel: Completing a well is kinda like baking a cake. You’ve got all these ingredients that go in. The pipe has to go in. You have to mix up cement and the cement has to be.. or the concrete has to be mixed just right. If they put too little water in the concrete, or too much water, the concrete’s not going to have the strength that it’s supposed to have. If they don’t put the right additives in, it’s not going to have the strength. And then when they go in there and put 10 or 15,000 PSI pressure on that well to break the rock, as I said before it’s going to go into the path of least resistance. And if that cement won’t hold 10 or 15,000 PSI where’s it going to go? It’s going to go right up the hole instead of out into the formation it goes up the pipe and then it can go into the groundwater.

Jamie: In other words, in the opinion of this homeowner, the only explanation for TBA being in his water is driller error. But Joel Nelson would be the first to say that proving drillers—either Pioneer or previous operators—contaminated his drinking water would be tough and he and fellow residents are frustrated that the onus is on them to do so.

Frani: But as Ross himself will also tell you, whether TBA is a health risk is not as much an issue as how did this man-made chemical get there. Until that answer is known Joel’s not drinking his water nor giving it to his 3 dogs. As for John and Marilyn Dolores—they’re trying to sell their home, but so far not one person has expressed interest even though they’ve lowered their price.

Jamie: Ross at the State Department of Health says he feels for homeowners who bought these properties before drilling. Because now they’re surrounded.

Google Earth Weston, ColoradoAndrew: Homeowners weren’t expecting to live in an industrial area. All you have to do is look at Google Earth to see how many well pads there are. It’s stunning.

Andrew: I understand the homeowners’ frustration because this is something that shouldn’t be there. When you have a water well you’re going to assume that there might be some naturally occurring things in your water. In Colorado, uranium is one of those things that is oftentimes in water. People tend to understand those risks. What people tend to not like is risks that are put upon them, that they didn’t get to choose.

Jamie: There are so many unanswered questions raised by the experiences of homeowners in Las Animas County. Some of these questions may be answered by a much-anticipated study on hydraulic fracturing being conducted by the EPA that includes analysis in the Raton Basin. Another investigation led by CU Boulder and involving researchers at nine institutions and funded by the National Science Foundation is also underway, but they are only two years in to a five-year study.

Frani: So in the meantime, for the residents here, there’s a lot of waiting...and a lot of uncertainty about having a man-made substance in their drinking water. And as they wait, gas production continues...leaving them without answers...and high and dry. 💧

Outro: In preparing this story we wanted to talk with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s Environmental Protection Specialist in southeastern Colorado who has done the work on this issue for that agency. However, the commission would not make him available to us and they did not respond to a list of written questions we submitted. We also reached out to Pioneer Natural Resources which did not respond in time for this story and also required a list of written questions.

Listen to the next segment in this investigative series: "Forgotten"



[11.14.14] Frani Halperin and Jamie Sudler discuss the story with Amy Hadden Marsh of KDNK in Carbondale, Colorado. Listen now


Sound Files

This story is available in two different versions: either as a single audio file or as a two-part package. All are available for download at PRX.org. This story in either version cannot be broadcast or reproduced without the permission of H2O Media, Ltd.

State Agencies

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE)

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC)

Well Water Research in Las Animas County

The University of Colorado Boulder is the lead institution for a Sustainability Research Network (SRN) funded by the National Science Foundation.The goal of SRN is to find the balance between maximizing the development of natural gas and oil resources – for the benefits of short-term reduction of carbon dioxide emissions from power generation and transportation, national energy independence, and national job growth – and minimizing damage to water and air resources and risks to human health.

EPA National Study on Hydraulic Fracturing
EPA is conducting a study to better understand any potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on drinking water resources. The scope of the research includes the full lifespan of water in hydraulic fracturing. The progress report was released in December 2012 and a draft report is expected to be released for public comment and peer review in 2014.

The Colorado Water and Energy Research Center (CWERC) studies the connections between water and energy resources and the trade-offs that may be involved in their use. CWERC seeks to engage the general public and policymakers, serving as a neutral broker of scientifically-based information on even the most contentious “energy-water nexus” debates. CWERC has developed a guide for well owners in areas of oil and gas development to establish a reliable baseline of their water quality and quantity.


Google Earth

Music: SsantisS, "The Last Breeze" /Creative Commons

Published: September 2, 2014
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