Neighbors claim oil-field odors are making them sick

Published: Thursday, Aug. 23 2012 8:23 p.m. MDT

Clumps of an unknown oil product sit in the Strawberry River in Duchesne on Friday, Sept. 24, 2010. Officials believe someone may have intentionally dumped the chemical into the river. (Photo by, Geoff Liesik, Uintah Basin Standard)

Geoff Liesik, Uintah Basin Standard

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DUCHESNE — Robert Fitzmorris may be 75 years old, he said, "but I've had doctors tell me I have the heart and body of a 55-year-old man."

Lately, however, Fitzmorris hasn't been feeling like a much younger man.

"The spring of 2011, that's when the smell started," said the retired HVAC engineer who moved from Denver to Duchesne County three years ago. "It has a sulfur, rotten-egg smell, and when you breathe it in, it immediately gives you nausea and (makes you) lightheaded and causes your throat to be sore all the time."

Fitzmorris isn't the only neighbor of Integrated Water Management who claims the plant is responsible for the "chemical stench." The company operates a facility north of Duchesne that treats wastewater from oil and natural gas production.

At least four other individuals living north of the facility have filed odor complaints with Duchesne County, according to county community development director Mike Hyde.

"We start looking at the issue when the first complaint comes in," Hyde said. "If the complaints keep coming in, like they have in this case, then it triggers a public review … of the conditional-use permit."

The Duchesne County Planning and Zoning Commission has scheduled a Sept. 5 public hearing to take comment on the odor issue and allow Integrated Water Management to provide information about its mitigation efforts.

"We probably would not take a hard and fast approach and shut someone down if they're trying (to mitigate odors)," Hyde said. "The commission has some options, of course, and the hearing will help them decide which is the best option."

Integrated Water Management has earned praise from regulators for its willingness to completely remediate a oil-field wastewater treatment site that was abandoned in 1990 by the previous owner. Pictures of the site taken in 2008 show large swaths of soil contaminated by puddles of crude oil, as well as dilapidated buildings, storage tanks and vehicles.

Now the facility uses state-of-the-art technology in the evaporative process and has added an injection well to its operations to reduce the amount of water in its ponds, according to project manager JT Martin.

"We made the decision a couple years ago that we were going to make the move away from evaporation ponds," Martin said, explaining the company's investment in its existing injection well and its plans to add two more in the future.

"After the water's been cleaned of hydrocarbons, we inject it back down in the ground where it came from, a mile or more below us," he said. "That is really the best place for it. We're working hard to put in more injection wells."

There is a foul odor when one stands near the evaporation ponds at Integrated Water Management's Duchesne County facility, but Martin disputed the claims by neighbors that those odors migrate miles away from the plant.

"We have personally never experienced odors further off our property," he said. "But having said that, if there is an odor that drifts off under the right wind conditions and the right barometric pressure, I think it's important to note that it's not harmful."

The company's employees work around the odors every day and "all enjoy good health," Martin said. He also questioned how Fitzmorris and his neighbors have reached the conclusion that the odors are emanating from Integrated Water Management's site and not from the scores of oil and gas wells and processing facilities that are much closer to their homes.

"Folks who have had the opportunity or have chosen to purchase property here recently need to understand that this industry has been here for going on 60 years," Martin said, pointing out that the area immediately around the acility has more oil and gas sites than homes.

"We do not make people sick," he continued. "In fact, we just do the opposite. Our facility keeps people from getting sick by stopping the release of (contaminated water) into the environment."

Still, the repeated complaints about people near the Integrated Water Management site getting sick led the TriCounty Health Department's environmental health division to conduct an air quality assessment in late July.

"Our monitors checked for H2S, which is hydrogen sulfide, and there were no findings of that in the area," said health department spokeswoman Jeramie Tubbs.

The sampling also failed to detect any volatile organic compounds at harmful levels, Tubbs said.

But Fitzmorris said spot checks by the health department aren't enough. He wants air quality monitoring stations installed at the facility, and he wants them running round the clock.

"I was considering buying a gas mask, but I thought, 'I'm not in a war zone. I'm here developing a place for me to live and a home,'" Fitzmorris said.

"It's not right," he added. "That's the way I feel. It's just not right."

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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