On June 20, Colorado's Cache La Poudre River—a National Heritage Area, and home to Colorado’s only naturally self-sustaining wild trout population—was contaminated by more than 7,500 gallons of crude oil, hazardous liquid waste, produced water and other fracking industry chemicals after a well-pad was engulfed by floodwaters from unusually heavy snowmelt.
Though more than 100 feet away from the river’s normal course, excessive runoff wiped out a protective berm at the Noble Energy well site State 7-36, damaged crude oil tanks and broke key valves on what industry terms a “produced water tank” causing the chemicals to drain into the river. While the crude oil and other liquid wastes were releasing, the oil tanks began to float—quickly becoming lifted by the buoyant liquids accumulating under the tanks and unhinging them from their moorings. The tanks then spilled even more crude oil and other toxins into the river. The state mandated anchors fastened to the tanks to prevent them from moving or spilling completely failed. Worse, because of inadequate oversight, it is unknown how long State 7-36 was draining into the Poudre before inspectors became aware of the situation.
Adding insult to injury, though the well was previously operated by Kerr McGee and then sold to Noble Energy, the actual mineral rights that this particular well was accessing belong to the State of Colorado. Another question that remains is how much revenue the state lost as the hydrocarbons owned by tax payers washed downstream—let alone how much additional costs will be born by those citizens because of the state’s decision to frack so close to the Poudre River in the first place.
Upon review by the oil and gas analyst and advocacy group, Fractivist.org, official form-19 “spill incident report” documents obtained from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) indicate that State 7-36 was inspected just after the surprise “tropical rainstorm” in September 2013 that poured historic volumes of water onto Colorado’s already unusually soaked mountains. Though wells all around it were heavily impacted by last year’s floods, 7-36 was not only listed as “undamaged,” but state documents show it wasn’t even a part of the last year’s flood impact list.
Despite recent inspection, the late spring surge of unexpectedly large flood waters, caught the regulators flatfooted. Not only were they unprepared to deal with the situation, they couldn’t even access the site for nearly a month after Noble reportedly “shut in” the well. It's likely the public will never know how much crude and other toxins spilled into the river since Colorado’s already challenged inspection regime—less than 20 inspectors for more than 52,000 active wells—can not evaluate the full impacts of the spill. Dually mandated to both regulate and promote the industry, COGCC inspection reports reveal that more than 65 percent of Colorado’s wells and production facilities—in excess of 34,000—escaped inspection in 2013.
The headwater streams that constitute the sacred Cache La Poudre begin deep in the Front Range mountains in western Larimer County and the northern part of Rocky Mountain National Park. The river descends eastward carving a spectacular canyon through the Roosevelt National Forest emerging from the foothills north of the city of Fort Collins. East of the city, which voted to place a five year moratoria on fracking and other oil and gas production last fall—more than 500 fracked oil and gas industry wells line the river’s banks as it meets the South Platte near Greeley. The Platte itself is also lined with dozens of other wells, well-pads and other oil industry equipment. Last year’s floods sent water and debris crashing into 1,963 wells along these river corridors, overwhelming their integrity and resulting in more than 85,000 gallons of liquid industrial waste spewing into the swollen rivers.
The Poudre River is the only river in Colorado that boasts a naturally self-sustaining wild trout population. It is listed as a National Heritage Area—including the 100-year flood plain of the river from its emergence out of the mountains to its confluence with the South Platte River—but is now pockmarked with wells. Though all the recent spills occurred downstream, many water experts believe that even upstream impacts can be felt by various micro and macro-invertebrates, that the oil and gas associated chemicals can impact river fowl, and affect the river’s own conductivity, thus impacting mayfly populations and other insect populations vital to a healthy river ecosystem.
Other state documents obtained by Fractivist.org report that:
On May 24, 2014, in anticipation of potential flooding due to heavy precipitation and snowmelt, Noble Energy shut in oil and gas wells State M36-3, M36-5, 6-36, 7-36 and 8-36. Flooding and field conditions impeded safe access to the wells until June 20, 2014. Immediately upon access to the tank battery unit associated with the above mentioned oil and gas wells, evidence of an unintentional release resulting from flood-related impacts was observed. Available information indicates a loss of 173 barrels of condensate.
The cause of the unintentional release is believed to be a break in the produced water valve on the back of the condensate storage tank. Noble called a vacuum truck to the location to vacuum up pooling water as well as any remaining fluids in both the affected and non-affected storage tank. A third party environmental emergency response consultant was called immediately following the discovery of the unintentional release to assess the location and deploy clean up measures.
Fractivist.org analyst Shane Davis explains that the COGCC knew that swift moving snowmelt runoff was on its way downstream, increasing the size of the flood plain and placing hundreds of the fracking industry wellpads along the river in immediate danger from being impacted by large volumes of fast moving water.
“In preparation of flooding, the industry claims to have closed or ‘shut in’ the wells in the immediate flood path to control fluid loss from the wellbores themselves," said Davis. "But even though the wells were not producing at the time, all the unprepared industry could do was hope that crude oil and other industrial wastes stored onsite would not be released. We can see the results of their assumptions: almost 8,000 gallons of fish and fowl killing chemicals dumped into the river.”
Note too, that chemical waste flows into the Platte through some of the most highly productive farmland in the nation. It is also the source of drinking water for much of the beef stock grown in Weld County, northeastern Colorado and throughout Nebraska. “It’s an open question as to if municipal water facilities are truly capable of detoxifying that water,” said Davis.
One of the lessons learned from last year’s historic floods in Colorado is that, due to climate change, many of the assumptions COGCC regulators relied upon about the safety of placing fracked oil and gas wells and facilities along river systems were incorrect. Indeed, because of their proximity to increasingly flood-swollen rivers, these fracking facilities are increasingly subject to greater environmental risk than many of the other wells in the state. Even more disconcerting is that the COGCC’s own protocols for mitigating tank integrity risk by mandating anchoring systems continues to fail to prevent the release of hazardous wastes into state rivers.
“Is industry prepared for climate change? The COGCC should immediately address this anchoring failure and head back to the drawing board while mandating inspections to all wells that could be impacted by an updated analysis of where floodwaters are now reaching," continued Davis.
"The health, safety and welfare of Colorado’s rivers and communities throughout the state are in peril due to inadequate state regulations and a failing regulatory regime that simply is not up to the task of preventing a multitude of environmental hazards from happening because of our rush to drill and frack as quickly as possible. Instead we have a sham regulatory system more concerned about industry’s quarterly profits than about long term impacts to the citizens and the environment of Colorado. To be sure, it will be citizens, not the corporations themselves, who will pay for the environmental clean ups now and down the road. Once again, profits are privatized while the debts corporations create for us are socialized."
Gary Wockner, executive director of Poudre Waterkeeper added, "Due to millions of dollars spent on lobbying and in elections, our Colorado state government—and especially our Governor, John Hickenlooper—are practically bought and sold by the oil and gas industry. One of the many casualties of this corporate fossil fuel empire is the Cache la Poudre River. Dozens of fracked wells and tanks line its banks waiting for the next flood to fill the river with toxic pollution again."
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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