After an energy company at the troubled Moneta Divide gas- and oilfield discharged more pollution than allowed under a 2020 permit, Wyoming is poised to change that permit to remove limits on, and monitoring of, some waste flows.

The state Department of Environmental Quality is set to relax oil and gas well wastewater discharge limits and monitoring requirements at the Moneta Divide Field near Shoshoni, a “statement of basis” for the draft permit states. DEQ is proposing a “major modification” to a permit issued a little more than a year ago to Aethon Energy Operating LLC.

DEQ would remove effluent limits on and sampling requirements for radium, barium and zinc flowing from the field into Boysen Reservoir and the Wind and Bighorn rivers. It would end routine testing requirements for a host of other compounds: aluminum, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, silver and thallium.

If approved, the DEQ would make other changes to the October 2020 permit, including screening to better detect fracking fluids. Those fluids, many of them toxic and necessary to develop oil and gas wells, are not allowed to be discharged along with naturally occurring underground “produced water.”

“Neither Aethon nor DEQ has justified removal of radium from monitoring and sampling requirements.”

Shannon Anderson, Brandon Reynolds and Sharon Buccino

A coalition of conservation groups is challenging the changes. 

“Neither Aethon nor DEQ has justified removal of radium from monitoring and sampling requirements,” three groups wrote in a statement. “We continue to oppose discharges that fail to protect aquatic life as required by Wyoming’s water quality standards and threaten drinking water supplies.”

DEQ proposed the modification after Aethon applied for changes based on new information it submitted. The waste and pollution initially flows into an unnamed drainage, on to Alkali Creek, Badwater Creek and then to Boysen Reservoir and the protected Class I Wind River downstream of Boysen State Park.

The 2020 permit was the focus of considerable debate when proposed in 2019 by Aethon and Burlington Resources. Public comment, including some made at well-attended public hearings, caused the DEQ to radically change the proposal.

Aethon and Burlington had sought to dump millions of gallons of tainted water a day and thousands of tons of pollutants a month onto the landscape as part of a plan to add 4,205 new wells to the longstanding field. DEQ required the companies — by 2024 — to greatly limit the amount of salty water they could spew and set a suite of monitoring requirements.

Aethon reported in early 2021 and twice thereafter that discharges from the Frenchie Draw wastewater treatment plant at Moneta exceeded limits set in that 2020 permit. Aethon now wants some of those limits increased or removed, some of the sampling locations moved downstream and some periodic sampling to end.

Not so fast…

DEQ accepted comments on the proposal through Nov. 15 and received four, agency spokesman Keith Guille said in an email. One, from conservationists, questioned the proposal and requested, unsuccessfully, a longer comment period because of the complex nature of the subject.

“Additional revisions — some mandated by law and others within the discretion of the WDEQ — are needed to safeguard Boysen Reservoir and its tributaries from the impacts of oil field wastewater,” the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Wyoming Outdoor Council and Natural Resources Defense Council wrote. The reservoir — 40 miles from gas- and oilfield discharges — supplies drinking water to the town of Thermopolis through the protected Wind River and, farther downstream, the Bighorn River.

A DEQ worker collects samples from Alkali Creek — below where produced water from the Moneta Divide Field is discharged — before regulators imposed new discharge limits in 2020. (Wyoming DEQ)

New information submitted by Aethon justifies the changes to the permit, the DEQ said. Further, “the net effluent output at the facility remains unchanged,” regulators wrote.

“The proposed [new] permits contain limitations and conditions that will assure that the state’s surface water quality will be protected,” according to the DEQ.

Monitoring that DEQ required Aethon to conduct starting in 2020 revealed that the Frenchie Draw gas production treatment facility, which separates gas from briny, produced water, exceeded permit limits several times. The Powder River Basin Resource Council obtained Aethon’s report and others through a public records request and shared them with WyoFile.

On Feb. 1 this year, for example, Aethon found radium registering up to 8.8 picoCuries a liter at one discharge point where DEQ had set a limit of 5 pCi/L for the radioactive substance. Five pCi/L is the maximum federal drinking water standard, above which the element may cause health problems.

DEQ set the 2020 limit to ensure conditions allow “aquatic life, livestock and wildlife watering, secondary recreation, industry, scenic value[s]” to continue in Alkali Creek. Aethon, however, contends that regulations allow the radium limit at Alkali to be 60 pCi/L.

Aethon wrote the DEQ in February the level of the discharge should be increased from 5 pCi/L to 60 pCi/L for radium and should be measured farther downstream from the discharge point — at Alkali Creek itself. DEQ now proposes a major permit modification that would remove radium limits and end sampling requirements “based on site-specific effluent data collected within and below the facility.”

Aethon made similar arguments for barium after finding 3,460 micrograms per liter of it at a discharge point. DEQ had set a limit of 2,000 ug/L for the discharge point in 2020.

DEQ would end sampling requirements for the other suite of constituents — aluminum, arsenic and others listed above, after Aethon sampling revealed “no reasonable potential” to exceed water quality standards.

Aethon ‘misunderstands’

Instead of less monitoring, the conservation groups argued for additional in-stream testing, continued sampling and reporting “to address fisheries and aquatic life concerns.

“Wyoming water quality standards prohibit the presence of ‘radioactive materials attributable or influenced by the activities of man’ in all Wyoming surface waters or in the sediments ‘in amounts which could cause harmful accumulations of radioactivity in plant, wildlife, livestock or aquatic life,’” the letter from PRBRC, WOC and NRDC reads. WDEQ should not reward exceedance of permit limits with removal of the limits, the groups contend.

Low-flowing and ephemeral streams and waterways mark the landscape at the Moneta Divide gas- and oilfield. (DEQ)

“Aethon misunderstands the criteria applicable to effluent limitations,” the groups wrote. “The classification of the water body into which the discharge occurs [one of the bases on which the permit changes are sought] is one factor in setting applicable permit limits — but it is not the only factor.”

The groups also called for monitoring of BTEX — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene — dangerous volatile organic compounds that vaporize easily. And they want a clean-up plan to correct existing degradation caused by “decades of oilfield pollutants,” according to their nine-page comment letter.

DEQ does not have a timeline for approval of the permit, spokesman Guille said.

“We’re currently in the process of responding to comments on this modification, and the commenting parties will receive a written response from us when a final action is taken by DEQ on the permit modification,” he wrote. The department would not comment on the conservationists’ letter, he said, but would eventually respond to them in writing.

Aethon declined requests for comment.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Frenchie draw exceeded their air and water quality permitted limits 10 years ago when Encana still owned it. DEQ did nothing then and they won’t do anything now.

  2. Pathetic – DEQ WQD continues to favor the industrial polluter over the interests of the people of Wyoming. It appears they are trying to sneak another one through without meaningful public comment – we had to fight like crazy to get the comment period extended and open public hearings the last go around and here we are again. And still, no cleanup of Alkali and Badwater Creek sediments even though DEQ issued them a Notification of Violation ( NOV ). I assume they got the go ahead from EPA to inject into the deep Madison aquifer after the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission reversed their earlier decision and okayed injection on the second hearing. Disposal of fracking chemicals by deep injection is a must but it absolutely must be confirmed by water sampling as the flush water production is recovered – millions of gallons of water containing fracking chemicals is recovered in the initial production phase of a well. It must be tested often during early flush production. It continues to look like a court order is the only way DEQ will act responsibly and clean the drainage’s up. The Environmental Quality Council could be used to conduct an open public hearing on this matter – its past time to get them involved.

    1. it may be due to who the governor(s)have appointed past and present to sit on the eqc. environmental quality council. they have been calling the shots and hold self interests. the deq remains controlled enforcement.

  3. What is going on with the DEQ? I’ve been under the impression their job was to keep our water,air and land safe. In the near future water will more valuable than the oil and gas that is the pollution problem in the Moneta area.
    I am against these proposed changes.

  4. I propose some of the ARPA stimulus money go toward hiring more forward-looking staff at DEQ, people that will do their job for environmental quality.

    Aethon is the same Texas investment company that proposed using the Madison aquifer as a dump for some of their produced waste. Now DEQ abandons their own standards and furthermore eliminates monitoring for this company?

    We all seem to agree here: if the can’t afford to properly treat and clean their waste, then they should shut in the field. Why should our future have to subsidize their stock holders?

      1. Hey DEQ Cowgirls and Cowboys! We the People DRINK that H2O. SO DO YOU! Why would DEQ allow lower standards for drinking water? Follow the $$$ boys & girls!

  5. No way, no how! Testing shows the complete lack of control Wy DEQ has over oil and gas exploration in Wyoming. Wyoming continues to be the laughing stock of petroleum producers. No where else would degrading 2 river systems with world class trout fishing and recreation be condoned like it would in Wyoming. This is a lot like the hunter: Jeez, I emptied my clip at only that one yearling, I don’t know how them other 5 got killed. DEQ believes they are smarter than anyone else in Wyoming but let me tell you, it is them who are ignorant and need their negligent management of Wyoming wild lands curtailed before the whole damn state is covered with radio-active, poisonous scum from production of substances that kill. You can bet there are technologies that can more than meet current lax regulations, but it might cost a few cents of profit. All of the extraction industries operating in Wyoming think the state is a throwaway piece of dirt. Au contraire, it is them.

  6. Outrageous, but not surprising. I doubt Aethon ever intended to comply with the permit, but went along with it until the public attention waned. DEQ tried to issue an inadequate permit before, and it took EPA involvement to change that. If viability of the project relies on being able to poison waters of the state that others have used relying on their quality for decades, then the project should be abandoned. DEQ does not have and should not have the authority trade the interests of long term users of state waters for the economic interests of one entity. They could easily deduct a few million from executive salaries to pay for the monitoring and treatment that are necessary. It is time for Wyoming to stop mortgaging its future to short term profiteering. We have plenty of energy resources to develop without the costs associated with this one, and many of those energy sources are much less damaging to the environment. Wyoming is still going to need its water when the Aethons of the world have moved on or died out.

  7. I forgot to add. The proposal to make testing for frac fluids required is a bone thrown to try and make the relaxation of standards palatable. Frac fluid chemicals are dwarfed by the current list of pollutants to be relaxed. DEQ, we are not ignorant.

  8. Unfortunately the comment period is over so I will post here. Alkali Creek is an intermittent stream made permanent by the Moneta Field discharges. While some of the effluent will end up in Boysen Reservoir, some will also evaporate and become concentrated in the soil. Some will also percolate down into the underlying freshwater aquifer. Wyoming DEQ is not addressing its duty, protection of surface and groundwater resources. Instead of increasing pollutants, Aethon should be required to improve water treatment or shut in production. Is Wyoming going to allow our resources to be degraded so a corporation can lower its cost of business? How valuable is the royalty Wyoming receives for this activity. Maybe DEQ needs a lesson in economics. The royalty is temporary, the pollution is permanent.