Cassie Paup was alarmed when she discovered a strong sulfur smell outside her house on Flat Iron Mesa on Sunday, Feb. 18.
“I arrived home from a trip on Sunday and, as I stepped out of the car, I was overwhelmed by the strong smell of gas,” Paup said in an email to The Times-Independent. “I panicked, thinking it was emanating from our home, but after thorough investigation eliminated it as the source. The smell was so strong I was worried about being outside. The winds were very strong, 25 to 30 mph, and yet the smell was not all diluted. It was sulfury and burny and you could taste it and it was burning my eyes. The next morning the sulfur smell was still strong. We suspected it was from the [nearby oil] well, but I made a few calls to investigate.”
Paup and another nearby resident, Kiley Miller, independently called the San Juan Sheriff’s Office to report the smell. Miller described the smell as, “like rotten eggs.” The sheriff told her that workers at the nearby well — Three Mile 24-21D, operated by Wesco Operating Co. on Bureau of Land Management property — said the odor was non-toxic. Workers at the site were not wearing respirators, the sheriff reported. Paup lives approximately five miles from the well site; Miller estimated that she lives about 15 miles away.
Paup also called the BLM.
“We were informed there [were] tests being run and that there were observers on site and that the smells were safe and non toxic. We were told that tests would likely continue in the next week and then possibly again in the near future,” Paup said.
The BLM confirmed that they communicated with the company following neighbors’ complaints.
“The BLM immediately followed up with the company after receiving reports from nearby private landowners of hydrogen sulfide odors,” said BLM Public Affairs Specialist Lisa Bryant. “Following on-site inspections, the BLM determined the company had followed safety precautions for the venting operations. Monitoring indicated that hydrogen sulfide levels did not rise to concentrations that triggered health or environmental concerns.
The gas dissipated rapidly and was below detection levels at the downwind edge of the pad, approximately 300 feet away from the collection tanks. The BLM is dedicated to safety and appreciates neighbors reporting unusual odors.”
On a Facebook thread, numerous other people reported smelling the sulfur smell as far away as U.S. Route 191.
Steve Degenfelder of Kirkwood Oil and Gas, which owns Wesco Operating Co., said that the well in question was tested starting on Feb. 17 and that there were third-party air-quality monitors on site.
“We started testing a zone at 7 p.m. on Feb. 17,” Degenfelder said. “Evidently the sheriff came out on Monday, Feb. 19 at 1:39 p.m. less than 48 hours [later] … but we did have a third-party air-quality company that set up devices on the edge of the location to monitor … constituents that are in oil and gas formations … The air quality was being monitored during the operation and did not note any harmful constituents … We’re interested not only in the public but also in our employees so that’s why we conduct [air quality tests].”
Degenfelder added that the zone tested was, “viewed as not commercial and that zone will not be produced,” but that other zones — horizontal layers beneath the well — may be developed.
Experts agreed that hydrogen sulfide gas is the main sulfur-smelling constituent that is produced by oil and gas wells. Seth Lyman, a professor of biochemistry and director of Utah State University’s Bingham Entrepreneurship and Energy Research Center, said that he was surprised folks could smell hydrogen sulfide that far away from the release point.
“It would usually be dissipated enough that it wouldn’t be [detectable to the human nose] and that makes me wonder if there’s something else going on closer to where those people were reporting the smell,” Lyman said.
However, he added that if it were indeed coming from the well due to unusual wind conditions, residents might not need to worry.
“Hydrogen sulfide can be harmful to health … just because you can smell it, it certainly is a nuisance when you can smell it but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a health risk,” Lyman said. “If [hydrogen sulfide] is really high … it actually deadens your sense of smell so if you’re smelling it and then you stop smelling it, that can be a sign that you need to get out of there quickly. Or it could be a sign the wind changed.”
However, hydrogen sulfide can be smelled at very low levels — much less than 1-part-per-million, possibly explaining why neighbors were able to smell the gas when the monitoring equipment did not detect high or harmful levels.
Lyman explained that emissions from wells are difficult to monitor.
“The problem is, these big emissions are intermittent … so when they are happening, it could very well be that the size of the emission, or the concentration it leads to, is high enough to cause an impact … but because they’re of short duration and usually unplanned, then it can be really hard to make the right measurements at the right times while that’s happening,” Lyman said. “If [residents] are worried about their health, they should probably contact the local health department. If they’re worried [that] this shouldn’t be happening, that’s probably something to talk to your county commission about … and whether they need to make an ordinance where companies are required to notify somebody who lives around there [before venting gas].”
Meanwhile, on Feb. 12 the BLM announced a proposal to modify their 2016 Waste Prevention Rule, also known as the venting and flaring rule, which increased regulation for companies venting and flaring natural gas on BLM lands.
“In order to achieve energy dominance through responsible energy production, we need smart regulations not punitive regulations,” said Joe Balash, assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management, in a BLM press release. “We believe this proposed rule strikes that balance and will allow job growth in rural America.”
“This proposal would align the regulations with administration priorities on energy development, job creation and reduced compliance costs while also working more closely with existing state regulatory efforts,” the press release stated.
The public comment period on the rule remains open for 60 days. Comments made on the proposed rule can be accessed on regulations.gov by searching the identification number “BLM-2018-0001-0001.”
San Juan County residents concerned about public health can also contact the San Juan Public Health Department at 435-359-0038.
ByBy Rose Egelhoff