flood politics

Comments from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the recovery and clean-up efforts following Colorado’s historic floods directly contradict the fear mongering of environmental activists who have played politics with this tragedy since the beginning.

The EPA’s Oct. 3 comments are particularly noteworthy given that news outlets like the Denver Post and CNN were clearly misled by the activists’ claims. From Energy & Environment Publishing’s EnergyWire (sub req’d):

“The total reported amount of reported [oil] spills is small compared to the solid waste” that has spilled from damaged sewer lines and household chemicals from destroyed homes, said Matthew Allen, a spokesman in EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver. …

Allen said EPA did aerial surveys in the days after the floodwaters began to recede to try to locate broken oil pipelines or other infrastructure that would cause a large-scale, continuous release, and did not find any. Instead, it has mostly worked to recover gasoline tanks and propane tanks that were carried away by the floods, he said.

“What we’ve really seen is this kind of slow trickle of smaller spills, and all are specifically related to the flood,” Allen said of the oil releases. “It wasn’t user error or improper operations; it all falls in the act-of-God category.” [emphasis added]

The comments from federal environmental regulators are in line with assessments from Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and the findings of public safety officials and experts at the state level. Compare the EPA’s comments with the claims of activists campaigning to ban hydraulic fracturing and oil and gas development in Colorado:

Fractivist:“We have communities that are going to be inundated with all these petrochemicals and fracking fluids.” (9/21/2013)

Food & Water Watch: “We’re talking about tens of thousands of toxic chemicals floating down the river, potentially ending up in communities, next to homes, next to agriculture land … We are just beginning to see the extent of the devastation … It clearly demonstrates why these ballot initiatives are going forward to stop fracking.” (9/27/2013)

East Boulder County United: “We know there is a danger of toxicology in Weld County right now.” (9/16/2013)

East Boulder County United:“This is washing across agricultural land and into the waterways. Now we have to discuss what type of exposure the human population is going to have to suffer through.” (9/15/2013)

FrackFree Colorado: “Oil and fracking chemicals are polluting our water, soil and air. In the wake of this public health disaster, we the Concerned Citizens of Colorado call for … [a]n emergency moratorium on all new well permits in Colorado [and] a plan to move immediately to bountiful, benign energy sources, such as wind and solar.” (9/17/2013)

Earthworks: “Please sign this PETITION to enact an immediate moratorium on fracking in Colorado … We need the national news stations to go cover the environmental disaster that’s happening in Colorado right now.” (9/15/2013)

Environment Colorado: “The largest spill occurred on Wednesday when about 5,225 gallons of crude oil flowed into the South Platte River near Milliken. Nearly 2 million residents of Denver rely on the South Platte for their drinking water…” (9/23/2013)

Environment Colorado’s press release, which tries to scare two million Denver residents about their water, shows just how low the activists will stoop to generate headlines. This map from Denver Water clearly shows the utility draws water from the South Platte many miles upriver from Milliken and the rest of Weld County’s oil and gas wells, and clear on the other side of the Denver metropolitan area. For good measure, Energy In Depth asked Denver Water to respond to Environment Colorado’s claim, and a spokesman told us:

“The majority of Denver’s water comes from rivers and streams fed by mountain snowmelt in the headwaters of the South Platte and the Colorado River. Our customers have not experienced any water service or quality issues as a result of the flooding or oil spills, which have been downstream of our collection system and service area.”

The misleading and alarmist statements by activists were part of an aggressive and cynical PR campaign that kicked into high-gear the moment the floodwaters arrived, and continued throughout the crisis. As people were struggling to protect their homes or fleeing for their lives, the activists were aggressively lobbying “Denver TV stations, other media, and state and local politicians” to shift their focus away from the clear and present dangers of the flood, and help the activists promote their anti-industry views. Reporters and public officials who were rightly focused on search and rescue efforts, and resisted the activist campaign to exploit this tragedy for political advantage, were falsely accused of imposing a “media blackout.”

But under pressure, some media outlets went along with the activists and rushed to judgment. For example, The Denver Post ran a front page photo with the caption: “A damaged tank Thursday leaks crude close to the South Platte River near Milliken.” But it wasn’t leaking crude, and a week later the Denver Post issued a correction, noting:

“Because of an editing error, a caption for an aerial photo of a holding tank near the South Platte River misidentified the fluid pictured on Page 1A of the Sept. 20 Denver Post. The rusty-colored substance was standing water left behind after floodwaters receded.”

Meanwhile, a CNN crew climbed aboard a plane chartered by activists, and the activists flew them over what looks like the same well site as appeared on the Denver Post’s front page. The reporter called it “another apparent problem – a brownish-colored sheen surrounded another tank that looked to be leaning.”

CNN was just one of many news outlets that allowed activists to fly them over the flood zone, seeing only the areas the activists wanted them to see. Later, the organizer of the flights bragged: “We flew news teams, activists and experts, including Reuters, CNN and CBS hitting national and local news all over the country.”

There’s no sign that any of these news outlets ever questioned how these flights were funded so fully and so quickly. Had they asked, they might have learned that across the country, the activists who want to ban hydraulic fracturing had a budget of at least $35 million last year, with big increases planned this year, according to a survey of environmental groups. That kind of budget can pay for lots of flights (including the jet fuel that powers them), and plenty of phone calls and e-mails to reporters who were doing their best to cover a natural disaster. That’s tough, thankless work, and those reporters probably didn’t expect to be mauled by professional political campaigners in the middle of a public safety crisis, or to be accused of a cover-up for simply wanting authoritative damage estimates instead of reckless speculation and fear mongering.

Ultimately, the all-out political campaigning was calculated to distract most of the news media from what public safety officials and other experts in Colorado were actually saying about oil and gas infrastructure. Why? Because the facts that came back from the flood zone completely contradicted the politically motivated claims of a “fracking flood disaster.”

More specifically: while some oil storage tanks were damaged, state officials have said the releases – roughly 40,000 gallons – are “very small” and pale in comparison to the 220 million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage that overflowed into billions more gallons of floodwater. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has said “untreated or partially treated sewage … is the larger public health concern,” and after surveying local, state and independent experts, one of the newspapers in the heart of the flood zone concluded: “Oil and gas releases, officials said, have been so small, it’s almost immaterial.” Other Colorado news outlets have noted that the reported volumes of released oil would barely fill the bottom of an Olympic-size swimming pool. Put another way, the State of Colorado says this amount constitutes “less than half a second” of floodwater flow.

Meanwhile, a University of Colorado environmental engineering professor, who is taking soil samples along the South Platte River, told the Associated Press: “My expectation is that we wouldn’t find anything that’s going to cause a lot of risk.” Another environmental engineering expert from Colorado State University, interviewed by the Fort Collins Coloradoan, said the following about the amount of oil released compared to raw sewage and the sheer volume of the flood water: “I’m not worried about it.” As for concerns about fluids from hydraulic fracturing – a process that only lasts a few days in the decades-long life of an oil and gas well – the State of Colorado has said “there were no hydraulic fracturing operations going on either prior to or during the flood response” in the impacted areas.

So, while the activists were in full campaign mode, what were the men and women of Colorado’s oil and gas industry doing? They shut in roughly 2,000 wells even before the floodwaters arrived, and then, according to the State of Colorado, oil and gas companies “deployed hundreds of personnel” to conduct damage assessments and address any impacts. According to state officials, the companies “have also been contributing their personnel and heavy equipment to flood rescue and relief efforts.”

For example, oil and gas workers loaded up trucks and SUVs with emergency supplies and drove them across a waterlogged dirt road into Milliken, after all five bridges providing access to the town were washed out. They trucked in food, water and other supplies to other towns in Weld County, such as Kersey and Evans, and provided hundreds of portable toilets to communities whose sewage systems had been completely overwhelmed by the floodwaters.

Oil and gas workers have distributed supermarket gift cards to families so they can buy groceries, donated hotel rooms to people whose homes were destroyed or cut off, and found many other ways to help their neighbors get through this crisis. In some cases, they have provided this help even as their own families struggle to deal with the impacts of this overwhelming natural disaster, because communities pull together in times of great need.

Meanwhile, Colorado’s oil and gas companies and their employees have donated more than $2 million to the Red Cross alone, according to the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, and hundreds of thousands of additional dollars have been given to other charities involved in the flood-relief effort.

That’s how the men and women of Colorado’s oil and gas industry responded when the floodwaters came. The response from the activists was politics, as usual.

Photo Credit: Flooding and Politics/shutterstock