Look Out Below!

When a Denver gas company started drilling wells in Las Animas County, it brought bad feelings to the surface.

Even though this part of southern Colorado can be bone-dry for weeks on end, these days the roads are almost always wet. That's because Evergreen has several water trucks driving up and down the canyons, spraying water from its wells onto the county roads--part of the company's ongoing effort to get rid of thousands of gallons of water its pumps pull up from the underground aquifer every day. Evergreen has over 100 wells in Las Animas County; they generate an estimated 24 million gallons of water a month.

Driving through arroyos with names like Burro Canyon and Chinaman Canyon, you see dozens of well sites with green-painted pumps that spin continuously, pulling up the natural gas from deposits as deep as 3,500 feet underground. Since the gas is naturally mixed with groundwater, it must go into a separator at each well site that extracts the gas and sends it into a network of pipes that run underground to a central gathering place. The leftover water is dumped into ponds adjacent to each well, where it's supposed to drain back into the ground or evaporate. To help move the process along, Evergreen trucks suck up some of the excess and spray it on the roads.

Water is at the heart of the controversy in Las Animas County. Although many natural-gas companies inject leftover water back into the aquifer, where it can't contaminate water supplies, Evergreen has chosen to leave it on the surface. While company officials insist the water is safe and argue in court documents that it's pure enough for stock animals to drink, residents worry about what's really in it--and whether it will contaminate the shallow wells that Bon Carbo residents depend upon.

"The issue is, we can't tell which water is clean and which water isn't clean," says Leslie Beck, who lives near Bon Carbo with her husband and two sons. "We're concerned about how this will affect our children and grandchildren."

Although there had been limited gas development in the area for years, most of those wells were on one ranch. In 1991 Evergreen acquired mineral rights for much of the land, including the parcels subdivided into ranchettes back in the 1970s. In 1993 the company embarked on an aggressive expansion program, drilling dozens of new wells in the residential areas around Bon Carbo; methane from those wells has been on the market since 1995.

The area is known as the Raton Basin, and it's been pumping out spectacular financial results for Evergreen. Last year the company reported profits of over $5 million on revenues of $13 million. "We believed for years that we had figured out how to extract coalbed methane very profitably in the Raton Basin," boasts Evergreen's annual report. "The results now speak for themselves."

And more drilling will be coming soon. In the report, Evergreen tells its stockholders it will use the gusher of profits from Bon Carbo to drill another 400 wells in the area over the next few years. All told, Evergreen estimates there are 550 potential well sites in the basin.

The Raton Basin operations will help fuel Evergreen's expansion into natural-gas projects in Chile and the United Kingdom, the report says, and "will continue to be the cashflow engine that funds the company's future development."

Since Colorado law makes it clear that surface landowners must allow access to their property for those holding the mineral rights, there is little property owners can do to prevent gas pumping on their land.

"I tell these people from Evergreen, 'How would you feel if I tried to put up a porno shop next to your house in Denver?' That's how I feel about them trying to put a well next to my house," says Mike Kircher, who has lived near Bon Carbo for more than fifteen years.

But while they know they must accept having wells on their lands, property owners still believe they should have some say in what those wells leave behind.

When Evergreen began its drilling operations around Bon Carbo, neighbors were first concerned about the noise. As more and more wells were drilled and containment ponds became a common sight, however, they became increasingly worried about the quality of the water coming out of the wells and whether that wastewater would threaten the shallow aquifer they use to supply their own homes. "We haven't said, 'Let's get rid of gas development,'" says Kircher. "We just want to be sure that any water being discharged is safe."

Kircher says he and other neighbors tried to talk with the company, but Evergreen didn't take them seriously. "They thought we were Ma and Pa Kettle from Bon Carbo," he says.

So a half-dozen neighbors decided to organize formally and started SoCURE. They commissioned studies of the water. They complained to county, state and federal officials. And in May of this year, SoCURE gave Evergreen sixty days' notice that it intended to file suit under the federal Clean Water Act. In their notification letter, the group's members enclosed more than a dozen photographs of Evergreen's discharge sites and containment ponds.

Citizens' lawsuits are an important part of the enforcement provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972. Under that law, if government agencies fail to take action against polluters, the public can file a suit demanding enforcement of the regulations.

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