By Judith Kohler
Walsenburg, Colo. — Bernice and Jerry Angely like to show visitors the singed T-shirt a friend was wearing when their water well exploded and shot flames 30 feet high.
The friend wasn’t hurt. But that and an explosion at another home weeks earlier forced Colorado to suspend natural gas drilling around this southern plains town until someone could find out why dangerous levels of methane were getting into the groundwater.
Two years later, Walsenburg and surrounding Huerfano County are still waiting, its residents caught in a collision between two of the West’s vital resources: water and natural gas.
“The water is so saturated with methane and other chemicals it is not to be used for human consumption,” said Bernice Angely, who’s had water trucked to her home 10 miles west of town since her well blew up in July 2007.
Petroglyph Energy Inc., a Boise, Idaho-based firm that has worked the rolling plains of the Raton Basin since 1999, suspended drilling until it can stem the methane. Colorado also is rewriting rules that had allowed Petroglyph to discharge water runoff from its drilling into streams and creeks.
But according to Petroglyph officials, it’s unclear the drilling caused the methane leaks or prompted other area water wells to run dry. Eying what Petroglyph officials call an extremely promising natural gas field, they argue a shallow water formation tapped by area homeowners isn’t connected to a deeper one pumped by the company for its drilling operations.
Petroglyph’s chief operating officer, Paul Powell, also said a growing number of new homes in the area could explain some of the dry water wells.
“We’ll do what we need to do,” Powell said, stressing that his firm is working with the state on a solution.
Petroglyph has a plan to prevent the flow of methane into water wells by creating a hydraulic barrier. Company officials have proposed pumping water from an underground formation and injecting it into a row of wells where gas drilling occurs. Powell said gas will migrate into a void, and “if the void is full of water, there isn’t room for gas to migrate through it.”
State regulators said the plan is plausible but that Petroglyph must prove it works.
Democratic U.S. Rep. John Salazar, who farms in the nearby San Luis Valley, has asked the U.S. Geological Survey to evaluate the area’s water quality and formations to determine if the gas drilling is to blame for the problems.
Water coursing through porous rock and streams has allowed farming, ranching and new subdivisions to thrive in the semiarid area about 160 miles south of Denver.
It also helps trap methane gas in the vast coal seams that once made the area a mining hot spot. The coal mines are gone, but the methane that made digging for it dangerous is a valuable resource. Companies such as Petroglyph pump huge volumes of water out of the ground to relieve the pressure trapping the natural gas.
Steve Gunderson, director of Colorado’s water quality control division, said Petroglyph will have to build a water treatment plant before it gets a new permit to discharge water. The old permit allowed Petroglyph to release up to 8 million gallons of water daily.
Ten miles west of Walsenburg, a rushing sound emanates from a pipe that vents methane from Ben and Melanie Bounds’ water well. The pipe was installed after a June 2007 explosion blew off a shed roof covering the well.
The Bounds had moved from Dallas to build what they call their dream home atop a hill with a breathtaking view of the Spanish Peaks. They say their problems started when Petroglyph began drilling nearby. They’re suing the company and haul water from town to their cistern.
“If I could run the clock back, we’d have never tried this,” Ben Bounds said.
Petroglyph insists it’s a good neighbor. Despite the methane mystery, it’s trucking water to 14 area homes and has supplied 15 homes with methane alarm systems.