Image: Theresa Gilbert, Weld Air & Water
Colorado was just drowned in epic flooding—commentators took to calling it "biblical"—killing eight people, forcing 10,000 to evacuate, and destroying or damaging nearly 20,000 homes. All this just after equally epic wildfires tortured the region, killing two and razing 500 homes. But even as the waters begin to recede, the state faces a new, freshly toxic problem: the floods have unleashed the state's fracking fluids.
Scenes like this are now common across the Colorado foothills:
Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of oil and fracking wells were flooded, and hundreds of them were feared to be contaminating local water supplies. There are 19,000 wells in the Weld County alone, which saw some of the heaviest rainfall. Gas companies, fearing disruption, shut off at least 1,900 after the waters hit.
Just look at this map, and imagine it violently covered in silty, once-in-a-thousand-year flooding.
Map via the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission
The fear wasn't just that all those wells or nearby pipelines would rupture outright, but also that the flooding might dredge up the controversial and toxic fracking fluids oil and gas companies use to blast through the rock. As CNN explains, "that mixture, which often takes on additional, naturally occurring contaminates such as lead or radioactive elements, is then pumped back to the surface. It's sometimes stored on site in large ponds or in tanks until it can be disposed of."
That is, unless floodwaters come along first, and mix it into a giant, toxic, muddy chemical cocktail. "From there, the toxins can end up in rivers or lakes used for drinking water, or run into water wells that have been damaged by the flood," CNN reports. "Longer term, the contaminants could stay in the soil once the flood waters recede and find their way into the food supply."
Anti-fracking groups have been working hard to spread the word on social media. Groups like Weld Air and Water, East Boulder County United and some individual citizens have been posting images of the flood-damaged fracking fields and wells on blogs and Facebook.
Image: Kathy Tompkins
"Once those chemicals hit flood water, they get across a large swath of the landscape," he explained. "Our big concern is oil and gas, and fracking chemicals, in the water. We have seen photos of oil slicks on top of the floodwaters and we are continuing to monitor all of the flooding and cleanup efforts. Oil, gas and fracking chemicals are poisonous to people and animals, and could pollute farms and drinking water supplies."
Tony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York told the Financial Post that the potential release of these fluids was a "major concern."
“We could have a long term, hazardous waste cleanup problem,” he said.
And it's not one the state saw coming. Colorado has become a hotspot for fracking, thanks to its wealth of natural gas and oil reserves, and to Governor John Hickenlooper, who has gone to occasionally absurd lengths to make his state attractive to fracking—the man once drank fracking fluid, for starters. A spate of thousand-year flooding covering thousands of wellheads was likely the last thing on his mind as he slushed the fracking gunk around his mouth.
Image: East Boulder United
But it turns out that the state's fracking operation is already leading to confirmed leaks and contamination right now, in the short-term. According to The Denver Post, "at least 5,250 gallons of crude oil has spilled from two tank batteries into the flood-swollen river" of South Platte.
And according to Al Jazeera America, "there have been reports of a ruptured natural gas pipeline and overflowing crude-oil wells."
The fracking industry, for its part, says all the wells have been properly shut down, and that 600 inspectors are currently in the field checking up on everything. They have also dismissed the Facebook images as the work of activists who are trying to "start a social media frenzy" without weighing in on their content.
It's fair to say that Colorado has been through hell this year—first, the droughts and wild fire (which made the flooding worse, coincidentally), and then epic floods. Now, it faces a ground swell of contaminated water bathing its communities and natural ecosystems. If this is hell, it's an increasingly familiar one. Scientists have said that this kind of "weirding"—oscillation between weather extremes—is consistent with what you would expect to see in a warming world. Climate change is, perversely, making both floods and droughts more common.
And with the US bent on reclaiming its title as the world's largest fossil fuel producer, we can go ahead and include a bunch of new and vulnerable oil infrastructure into the mix. Which makes the flooded Colorado foothills a sadly apt microcosm of a future slice of America: More drought, more wildfires, more floods, and more toxic stuff just waiting to wash over everything.