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How the West's Energy Boom Could Threaten Drinking Water for 1 in 12 Americans

A rush to develop domestic oil, gas and uranium deposits along the Colorado River and its tributaries is a threat to our children's future

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At least four large mines that operated as recently as the 1990s -- long after new regulatory standards were put in place -- have caused so much contamination that the EPA designated them as priority Superfund cleanup sites. One rendered a 20-mile stretch of a Colorado River tributary completely dead.

"Promises are made and promises are broken," said Roger Clark, who is director of the Grand Canyon Trust's air and energy program and has been monitoring the rise in mining claims near the Grand Canyon. "This is not something we can sit back and take industry's word for."

Clark, who explored the Colorado River as a Boy Scout and later as a river guide, already has seen signs of the park's decline. On a recent hike along the Grand Canyon's rim, he passed a stream whose water he drank freely as a boy. Now it's marked with a sign saying, "Drinking and bathing in these waters is not advisable." The Park Service posted the same warning along five other canyon streams that feed into the Colorado, because high concentrations of uranium have leached into the water, likely from old mines.

In June, the House Natural Resources Committee invoked a rarely-used authority to force the Bush administration to make one million acres of public land adjacent to the park ineligible for exploration. Two months later, though, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne allowed some 20 new claims in the area by deciding that the committee's move violated executive authority.

Secret Chemicals

In the last decade, a pattern of contamination has also emerged in places where natural gas drilling has intensified. If drilling increases substantially across Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, it could also imperil the river.

A waste pit at a natural gas drilling site (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)


A waste pit at a natural gas drilling site (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

Most wells rely on a process called

hydraulic fracturing

, which requires as much as two million gallons of water plus small amounts of often-toxic chemicals for a single well. The waste water then sits in open pits until it is treated, recycled or disposed of.

In February a waste pit high on a mesa overlooking the town of Parachute, Colo. sprang a leak, allowing some 1.6 million gallons of fluid to soak into the arid earth. According to state records, the spill migrated underground until it seeped from a cliff side and froze into a gray pillar of ice more than 200 feet tall. When it melted, the fluids dripped into the torrid currents of Parachute Creek and finally dumped into the Colorado River.

Although the number of gas drilling accidents in the upper Colorado River watershed is small relative to the amount of drilling, they have begun adding up. Colorado state records show that of some 1,500 spills in drilling areas since 2003, more than 300 have seeped into water. In one case last summer a truck carrying drilling fluids crashed into the Colorado, where it remained partially submerged for more than three weeks.

In neighboring Wyoming, the BLM found a 28-mile-long plume of benzene contamination in an aquifer beneath a gigantic gas field. The aquifer is near a tributary to the Green River, which in turn flows into the Colorado.

Doug Hock, a spokesman for the Canadian gas company Encana, which drills in Colorado and Wyoming, says that while there will always be spills, the fears of pollution are exaggerated. Encana uses steel and concrete casing around its drill pipes, lines its waste pits and, increasingly, cleans its waste water and re-uses it inside its wells.

"We have put in place safeguards to protect the water," Hock said. "There is always a balance -- this country has a great demand for energy."

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