Cliff Willmeng was filming from the banks of the raging St. Vrain River in Colorado when he heard a sound like guitar strings being plucked. He looked around for the source and spotted, in the rapids near him, an electrical pole leaning at 45 degrees. "To be honest, it was probably dangerous, what I was doing," he admits. "[But] the more unsafe the travel became, the more important the work became."
Willmeng, a trauma nurse who lives in Lafayette, Colorado, wasn't documenting the devastation of the Front Range's 1000-year flood for thrills. For years, he's been involved in trying to ban the controversial drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, from Colorado communities. As the flooding began to reach what the National Weather Service called "biblical" proportions, he realized that floodwater was headed straight for some of Colorado's most developed oil and gas drilling areas.
Concerned about how drilling sites would withstand the flooding – and what chemicals might end up in the water – Willmeng grabbed his camera. He headed towards neighboring Weld County, one of the nation's most productive agricultural counties and home to thousands of fracked wells.
With roads and bridges washed out or flooded, getting there was tough. But he eventually found what he'd feared: submerged wellpads and pipelines, waste tanks torn from their moorings and floating downstream. He posted the photos to his Facebook page and that of East Boulder County United, a grassroots group working to ban fracking in Lafayette. (Click here to see them.) The next day, Willmeng was out photographing again. On Tuesday, he took a flight with a group called EcoWatch, following waterways and recording images of inundated drilling facilities and loose tanks. "It was pretty dramatic all around," he says. Within a few days, says Willmeng, the photos had "gone fully international" and other people were out documenting compromised drilling facilities.
Thanks to a recent boom in natural gas production atop the Wattenberg Field, Colorado is home to some 50,000 oil and gas wells. It's not yet known just how many were impacted by the flooding, but early reports suggest a significant number. "We have thousands of wells impacted with anything from standing water to flowing water," a spokeswoman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association told CBS News.
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Industry spokespeople and state regulators say it's too soon to know the impact, including whether or how much the flooding introduced hydrocarbons and chemicals into surface water. Some have said that many wells were safely closed before the flooding and that activists are overstating the danger of contamination.
On Wednesday, as FEMA helicopters became available for non-rescue uses, the EPA sent two airborne and one ground crew to look for oil sheens, according to EPA regional spokesman Matthew Allen. The EPA's major concern, he says, is a major spill like the one that happened in 2011, when debris and floodwater ruptured a pipeline running underneath the Yellowstone River. So far, though, no significant spills have been discovered.
Oversight of natural gas drilling and the wastewater produced by it falls to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which Wednesday released a statement that it "is aggressively assessing the impacts of the flood to oil and gas facilities," including by mapping drilling sites within flooded areas, tracking reports from the ground, and sending out inspection teams.
Water pollution from chemicals used in fracking (which include known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors) was a concern well before the flood. What's new is the concern that contaminated wastewater stored in tanks and even open pits may have been released into water and soils. "Any flood that breaches a wastewater pit will flush the waste and contaminated sediments into streams and rivers," Roy Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University, told FastCoExist. Then there's the pipeline infrastructure that supports the wells: One pipeline reportedly broke, and others sagged as the soil that supported them eroded. Emergency managers have advised residents to stay out of floodwater for fear of contact with chemical pollutants as well as sewage.
Willmeng calls the flooding "our worst nightmare," but also notes that it comes at a fraught time, as Colorado communities debate the role of fracking within their borders. This November, five cities will be voting on ballot initiatives to either ban hydraulic fracturing (in the case of the Lafayette Community Rights Act) or to put local moratoriums on gas drilling. "Colorado was in the process of rapidly becoming aware of the dangers of this industry prior to the floods," says Willmeng. He believes that process is about to speed up dramatically.