An angler enjoys the Wind River in Wind River Canyon just upstream of the “Wedding of the Waters.” (Matthew Copeland/WyoFile)

This is the first in a series of 10 stories recognized by judges in the Best of the West 2020 journalism competition. The other nine stories are linked at the bottom of this story — Ed.

Millions of gallons of tainted water carrying thousands of tons of oilfield pollutants could flow into Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River each month under a proposed Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality permit, but without substantially degrading water quality, the agency says.

The permit would authorize operators of the Moneta Divide oil and gas field, which is expected to expand to 4,250 wells, to discharge 8.27 million gallons a day of “produced water” from the field. Some 25 acre feet a day could flow from the wells north of Shoshoni into Alkali and Badwater creeks that would carry the contaminants 40 miles downstream to Boysen Reservoir to be diluted.

Operators led by Aethon Energy would be permitted to discharge up to 2,161 tons a month of total dissolved solids in the flow, including more than 1,000 tons each of sodium and sulfate. Those flows would mix with purer water in the reservoir, according to the draft permit. The diluted stream would then be released into the Wind River below the Boysen Dam just above Wind River Canyon, a 12-mile reach with Wyoming’s highest water quality designation — Class 1.

“We are trying to maintain the quality of the Wind River below Boysen Dam,” said Bill DiRienzo, DEQ’s discharge program manager. Wyoming classifies the stretch between the dam and the Wedding of the Waters near Thermopolis as “outstanding water” in which “no further water quality degradation … will be allowed.”

In Boysen reservoir, a 300-foot-long area at the mouth of Badwater Creek would be a “mixing zone” where a higher concentration of pollutants would dissipate through dilution into the 20-mile long reservoir. At 5.5 miles wide, Boysen Reservoir is capable of holding 802,000 acre feet of water.

The proposal worries the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate.

“We’re not comfortable relying entirely on the information DEQ has,” he said. “We’re seeking to have consultants of our own review the materials.”

A recreation, fishing mecca.

Boysen Reservoir, the centerpiece of a 15,145 acre state park, lures anglers with walleye, sauger, perch, crappie, and ling, plus rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout. Boaters, campers and others enjoy the reserve.

Anglers enjoy some fishing on Boysen Reservoir near a picnic table and shelter in the state park. (Wyoming State Parks)

Below the dam the Wind River courses through a whitewater canyon on the Wind River Indian Reservation to the reservation’s northern boundary. Whitewater rafting and trout fishing are hallmarks of this free-flowing reach.

Water emerged as the public’s top priority for the BLM when the federal agency sought public input on what it should study — a process called scoping — when first considering the Moneta Divide expansion in 2012. Of 426 comments received during scoping by the BLM, 56 singled out water, followed closely by air quality.

“It’s a very popular recreation area for residents of Fremont County and surrounding communities,” Heilig said. “Young children swim in it every day in the summer. There’s boating … fishing.”

The permit would allow the discharge of up to 1,072 tons a month of sulfate and 1,426 tons a month of sodium, among other pollutants. “It’s hard to imagine this amount of pollutants will not have a significant impact on the resources and people who use Boysen for its recreational opportunities,” Heilig said.

Below the Wind River Canyon, the river — known as the Bighorn River downstream of the reservation boundary and the Wedding of the Waters — serves nine major canals and ditches. They irrigate 70,575 acres of crop and range land, according to WyoFile calculations based on state water documents. The network also waters lawns, gardens and a golf course and provides municipal water to the town of Basin

The DEQ is seeking comments by April 17 on the proposed permit, but Heilig said the 30-days provided is not enough. One reason, he said, was a “modeling report,” prepared by Aethon consultants and supporting the proposed permit, which runs 637 pages. The permit application itself is 113 pages.

DiRienzo agreed the proposal is complex. “It’s an extremely technical document,” he said of one Aethon submission. “They had four or five PhDs working on that.”

Heilig said WOC is hoping to do “an independent, objective and thorough review.” But, “we simply don’t have that time now,” and likely will seek a deadline extension.

Expansion of an older field

Ongoing oil and gas drilling operations in the area discharge approximately 50,000 barrels or some 2 million gallons per day, DiRienzo said. The existing Neptune Water Treatment Facility, which removes enough pollutants from the produced water to allow its release, would have to be expanded to handle additional flows.

“They don’t have the capacity to produce and discharge that amount of water,” proposed in the draft permit, he said. Future discharges from the field could reach 8.27 million gallons a day under the permit.

The Neptune facility employs reverse osmosis — essentially water pushed through a filter under pressure — among other methods to reduce pollutants, he said. Aethon’s application says future pollutants would be reduced with “heater treated, gravity separation, emulsion breaking chemicals, and/or skim ponds and tanks.”

The proposed Moneta Divide oil and gas field proposed by Atheon Energy and Burlington Resources Oil and Gas Company LP would cover 265,000 acres. The area lies mostly in Fremont County but includes part of neighboring Natrona County as well. This map shows two proposed water discharge pipelines in blue that are no longer part of the plan, and a proposed gas pipeline in green. (BLM)

Drilling for oil and gas produces tainted water out of the ground that registers between 6,500 and 7,500 parts per million of total dissolved solids, DiRienzo said. “They will reduce that after treatment and blending … down to levels you see in the draft permit.”

Most people will say “Oh my God, that looks like a lot,” he said of the weights proposed for discharge. “It’s not really.”

The question DEQ must answer is “how much mass could be added into that [water] system and be lost in the normal background.” DiRienzo said. To answer that, Aethon, its consultants and the DEQ asked “How much salt is there right now?”

Compared to that background, the proposed discharges,  “are small fractions,” he said. “They would be lost in the normal background fluctuation. That would happen through mixing in Boysen.”

The permit would allow 15 “outfall” locations where water would flow into ephemeral creek beds. Today the field only uses four, he said.

In the Boysen Reservoir mixing zone, pollutants would affect aquatic life after exposures longer than seven days, he said. Anglers shouldn’t worry, because fish won’t be tainted according to DEQ and Aethon’s analysis.

“If [a fish] is in [the mixing zone] for its entire life, it’s safe,” he said.

The designation of the Wind River as Class 1 and Boysen Reservoir as Class 2 waters means they can’t be degraded beyond a certain point. That’s compared to the water quality that existed before their classification. In this case, the Frenchie Draw gas field, a precursor to Moneta Divide, existed in the mid 1960s. The waters were not protected — and hence the baseline water quality measures were not established — until 1979.

New pollutants will be measured against those baselines, DiRienzo said. For example, the draft permit recognizes an average of 9 milligrams a liter of chloride in the Wind River today. The anti-degradation target is 12 milligrams a liter and the permit would allow a maximum of 16 milligrams.

“We would not expect more than 12,” DiRienzo said.

DEQ spokesman Keith Guille explained it another way. “With the limits that were set for this draft permit we wanted to ensure they do not impact further the Wind River as well as Boysen,” he said. “That’s what’s important. You will not see that impact.”

BLM set to authorize oil, gas field

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is completing a draft environmental impact statement on the proposed 4,250-well Moneta Divide oil and gas field that would produce the tainted flows. The 265,000-acre field proposed by Atheon Energy and Burlington Resources Oil and Gas Company LP lies mostly in Fremont County but includes part of neighboring Natrona County as well. The actual Moneta hydrological divide separates the Wind/Bighorn basin from the Powder/Tongue drainage.

The area has been a target of development since the 1960s, Kristin Yannone, the BLM’s environmental and planning coordinator in the Lander Field Office, wrote in an email. “Some of the deepest productive gas wells on [the] continental U.S. are in the Madden Deep Unit, in Moneta,” she wrote.

There has been ongoing drilling at Moneta under an interim development plan. “We have always been willing to authorize a continuing level of development,” she said. It allows the BLM to approve a maximum amount of surface disturbance based on what has historically been the case over the previous decade.

Water from Boysen Reservoir, lower center of the map, runs north to irrigate lands, seen in green, in Hot Springs, Washakie and Big Horn Counties. (Wyoming Water Development Office)

“The level of development has been low,” Yannone said. In the last five years “Aethon has not come within 50 percent of these caps.”

About five years ago the BLM zoned the Moneta Divide field as a Designated Development Area where other resources would take a back seat. Fully 360,000 acres north of Shoshoni were so earmarked by the BLM as part of the Lander Resource Management Plan, Yannone wrote. “This development emphasize was a balance to the almost 50 percent of the Lander planning area that the 2014 Plan identified as closed to oil and gas leasing or no-surface occupancy leasing,” her email reads.

In a DDA, “development is facilitated, primarily through efficiencies in processing of applications,” she wrote. In such areas, the BLM expedites developers’ requests to limit restrictions protecting most wildlife. There is a “slightly lower” standard for reclamation, and visual resources are secondary, she wrote.

As originally proposed by Encana, which owned most of the field before selling to Aethon, the expanded development would see 4,100 wells drilled on 3,076 pads. That plan, now being revised, called for disturbing or degrading more than 28,000 acres, almost 11,000 acres of it permanently.

Aethon and Burlington may have a smaller footprint than that proposed under the Encana plan, Yannone said in an interview. “Aethon’s approach is to emphasize a lot more directional drilling,” she said.

That modern drilling technique allows operators to cluster several wells at one surface site. “Surface disturbance is reduced under directional drilling,” she said. While Aethon has drilled up to eight wells from a single surface site, the draft environmental impact statement will estimate surface disturbance based on an average of four wells per pad, she said.

The BLM will consider several alternatives to disposing produced water. When proposed by Encana, operators would have piped the discharged water to Boysen. Aethon would let it flow 40 miles down the ephemeral Alkali and Badwater creeks.

Alkali is a waterway that barely flows. “For most of the year [produced water is] the only flow in Alkali creek,” DiRienzo said. “There might be a little bit of a base flow in the spring.”

The BLM’s role is to ensure that whatever happens with a DEQ permit “it does not cause degradation.” Yannone said. Several options remain in the mix.

“On one alternative, Aethon would discharge more water on the surface than others,” she said. “Under all alternatives, we assume the operator will meet requirements of a [DEQ] discharge permit.”

Because Aethon has invested significantly in formulating the plan to discharge the water on the surface 40 miles from Boysen, “it’s reasonable to assume that’s what they would like to do,” she said.

Wyofile did not receive response to a request for comment from an Aethon representative.

Another big document coming

Release of the oil and gas field draft EIS document could be a month away, BLM officials said. The draft EIS will reflect recent changes made to BLM conservation rules for greater sage grouse. Those were finalized March 15 and reduce federal protection of greater sage grouse and requirements to replace destroyed habitat.

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“I was instructed to hold the draft EIS to make sure everything we said [agreed] with the Record of Decision released Friday,” March 15, Yannone said. “I have incorporated those changes.”

When the draft EIS comes out – perhaps within a month — it should have a 90-day comment period.

Below are links to the other nine stories in the series recognized by judges in the Best of the West 2020 journalism competition.

Residents fret about oilfield dumping plan for Bighorn River

Residents win comment extension on oilfield pollution dump

BLM offers draft for Moneta: font of revenue, pollutants

Boysen, Moneta plan draws sharp divide between counties

Analysts hit plan to dump oilfield pollutants into Wind River

EPA: Oilfield pollution may significantly degrade Wind River

EPA: ‘Significant environmental impact’ in BLm oilfield plan

Groups: Current Moneta oilfield discharges already violate law

State eyes downgrade of oilfield creeks’ protection

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. August 25, 2019
    I have read most of the comments & would like to know WHY we would NOT want to bring the EPA into this VERY IMPORTANT to Wyoming, water discharge permit. I have read about elevated sodium levels & wonder the effect of that on agricultural land. I know that salt KILLS vegetation. Salt is composed of sodium chloride. I understand that both of these chemicals (sodium & chlorine) are present in the proposed discharge water, and the sodium is the one that kills the vegetation. Does anyone in Wyoming want to lose the valuable water resource that produces food & provides drinking water for people & wildlife (fish included), the latter of which we like to eat in addition to simply caring about the wildlife, which most of us in Wyoming, enjoy. Can the wildlife even exist with the higher pollutant levels being discussed? Please remember that the DEQ has limited resources, & the people who work there are state employees who can not simply do as they please. I formerly worked for an EPA certified lab which did Superfund lab tests (not that I did them). If not hooked to an oil & gas industry corporation, a lab like that should be able to do extensive testing on ALL or MOST possible pollutants & are less likely to draw conclusions based on political pressure. Why not utililze that resource and why not ask the EPA to divide up the testing among all Superfund certified labs? As far as who should supervise this, the EPA would be my choice. Thankl you & God bless Wyoming, its people, environment etc.,

    1. The caption for my ‘comment’ said something about ‘tons of pollutants’. I never mentioned those words & do not know about what pollutants (other than the ‘mentioned in the article’ sodium). The water that is used on agricultural lands was also mentioned in the article. We need to be concerned about the effect on wildlife & crops (which we directly or indirectly eat) of the discharged water. From what was stated in the article, there is a large amount of discharge water per day being planned. This amount, I think could overwhelm our waterways. There is no mention of CONTINUING with TREATMENT of the water through, I think, reverse osmosis-which is suppose to be very effective. As mentioned, in the comments sections, ‘holding tanks’ would not be practical with such a large amount of discharge water. Please don’t let this happen. It would probably have far-reaching negative results on every aspect of Wyoming’s valuable resources, including the people. If you want to investigate a way of dealing rationally with this, please allow a COMPLETE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT & NON-VESTED INTEREST PEOPLE to do the best for Wyoming. Thank you!

  2. The operational antics of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality for the past few decades is State’s Exhibit A on why you really do not want State and local control over important things in the public interest,
    The State’s Rights rabble proclaims that those closest to the ground know what is best , not some agency in a faraway federal office. Except that theory completely falls to pieces when you observe how it plays out on the ground… under it, above it, running thru it. The State managers are entirely too cozy with energy and mineral corporations , or completely co-opted by them , making critical decisions based entirely on money and not things of actual value, like clean air, clean water , quality of life, the future. The Stae Legislature allowed itself to be run by mineral and energy lobbyists to the extent of letting industry write the rules and industry to self-enforce them . Whereas the federal agencies take the broader view in enforcing the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act , applying NEPA, etc….

    I will take the federal EPA over Wyoming DEQ any day , given those two wretched choices.

    P.S. They didn’t name it Badwater Creek for naught…

  3. Wow, you folks think this stuff isn’t flowing into Boysen Reservoir already?
    100+ years from some oil fields near Lander, Fort Washakie, Pavillion, Riverton and a bunch of (even more) unknown places … for you folks from out of state.
    And yeah, there’s ALWAYS more than the one or primary constituents noted in public announcements.

    But … I know both Bill and Dan and you couldn’t ask for better guys as “adversaries” and professionals.

    In some ways, old WHYO is way better off than where I currently serving my final “sentence”before retirement.

  4. We are no longer at the beginning of the end, we’re at the end of the end, and it still seems like people keep buying into the lie and don’t care. Since when have these companies ever been truthful with their plans, or their estimates of risk and damage control? They will lie and pay off all those in power to get their way. We will all pay the price for this if we allow it to happen. Wake up, Wyoming.

  5. Just to be clear about what is in the waste fluid since the article fails to describe it in layman’s terms. What they are talking about is slightly salty water. When you mix slightly salty water with fresh water there aren’t really a lot of issues. There are no volatile organic compounds in the water, no carcinogens or similar nasty stuff. This sort of thing is pretty commonplace in Wyoming and Colorado where I work. Lots of scientific research goes into permits like this. We’ve been doing a similar discharge here in Colorado in the Raton Basin which feeds Trinidad Reservoir for the past 20 years and our aquatic surveys have shown no impact.

    1. Who is the “our” who is doing the aquatic surveys? What is the monitoring system that assures there is no “nasty stuff” in the discharge?

    2. Jason, what does science have to do with this discussion? Don’t you realize it’s all about emotion, not science!

  6. There must be an alternative to this. Perhaps the oilfield pollutants could be diluted in large holding tanks until test showed that they were safe to release into stream and lakes. Mixing before dumping and testing before releasing would ensure the mixture is safe for humans and water life. I hate to see my favorite fishing places become dead water.

  7. I would echo the sentiments expressed in the two previous replies. It seems all to evident that gas and oil interests in Wyoming supersede all other interest, but to what end? Is it really worth the risks?

  8. DEQ is as big a joke as the Wyoming legislature. The only lasting features of Wyoming, the ones that attract tourists, are being destroyed by greed and an insatiable demand for petroleum and other nonrenewable contents of the earth.

    Humans are beyond rehabilitation. The universe will be a better place without us.

  9. I’ve been retired from a career in water quality for some years now after a few decades of work in that field. This article makes no sense to me. If the goal is no degradation of class 1 and 2 waters, then using those waters for dilution purposes clearly violates that goal. What is being discussed is how much degradation to allow. I am confused as to why the only measure of water quality discussed is total suspended solids. Production waters generally contain contaminants other than the salts discussed. What are the limits for those other elements? What will the compliance testing parameters be? From what was presented, I can’t tell if any analysis of the potential impact on agricultural lands has been done. Perhaps that is in the lengthy report that no one has seen yet? I haven’t done any work with DEQ for many years. My past experience is that they were a dedicated bunch woefully underfunded. I didn’t see the type of laboratory depth necessary to evaluate and enforce a permit based on an environmental investigation of the sort described here. On the information provided, I can’t say that the plan is good or bad, but I will say that it needs a lot of careful analysis before it is allowed. The waters impacted would be extremely difficult to clean up once polluted, and they are incredibly valuable natural resources. I hope this decision is not rushed or politicized. We need clean water more than we need gas.

    1. Hi Linda,
      Just learned that the DEQ will hold an informational public meeting in Riverton on Monday MAY 20 at CWC, 5:30-7:30. Your knowledge and experience in the field would make you an extremely valuable member of the audience! Please consider attending if at all possible.
      Hope to meet you on the 20th!

  10. Are we really going to let them destroy everything for oil? Does not one soul in WY think this is bad? Can we not change our ways to save ourselves? Or are we like alcoholics with petroleum? I would have though that once we realized we were screwing our world we would change but, NO. I am willing to bet that WyDEQ is getting paid something under the table. That our Representatives and Governor are taking monies from places they ought not. Why is it only the assess that lie through their teeth to get elected are running for office and winning? Do Wyomingites think liars are better people? That thieves and cheaters run a world better than honest, caring people do? I’m beginning to think that what I thought I knew about my home is all whitewash.

  11. ,Here we go again the waters, wildlife, wetlands, and residents of Wyoming foot the bill for cleaning pollutants spewed by the mineral industry. Pumping this stuff into our waters does not keep them clean and ok for wildlife or human use. A little bit and a little bit there and soon a legacy heritage of Wyoming is lost!