A Colorado natural gas processor will pay a $3.25 million fine in a settlement with federal and state air pollution officials, after allegations the company failed to detect and repair leaks that contributed to worsening ozone problems on the northern Front Range.
DCP Operating Company LP and five related subsidiaries will pay the fines and make repairs, in a consent decree announced by the regional Environmental Protection Agency office in Denver after allegations of leaks and failure to repair at gas processing locations in Greeley, Platteville and other Weld County locations. Weld County is part of the EPA’s northern Front Range nonattainment area for ongoing ozone violations, and state and local governments must come up with plans to cut emissions that contribute to the health-harming gas.
The decree says DCP does not admit to liability for the allegations, but will have to pay the fine and also invest millions of dollars in equipment and systems to prevent new leaks. The decree was negotiated with EPA, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, part of the state health department.
“Enforcement actions like this are critical to improving air quality, particularly in places facing air quality challenges like Weld County,” Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a statement.
Soon after the fine announcement, the state health department issued another Ozone Action Day Alert for the Front Range, one of many so far this summer, warning vulnerable residents to avoid too much outdoor activity for 24 hours.
“EPA continues to deliver cleaner air through the rigorous enforcement of the Clean Air Act,” EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker said in a statement. “This settlement will reduce emissions of over 288 tons of volatile organic compounds and 1,300 tons of methane from production areas near northern Colorado communities, a majority of which are disproportionately impacted by pollution.”
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan credited state inspectors and enforcement personnel from the air division’s leak detection and repair program. She said the settlement will go to the state’s Community Impact Fund, which helps pay for local environmental justice projects.
DCP will now have to bolster leak detection and repair at facilities in the Greeley, Kersey/Mewbourne, Platteville, Roggen, Spindle, O’Connor and Lucerne processing plants, and the future Bighorn plant. The requirements include new equipment that leaks less, tightening compliance with rules, repairing leaks faster, and staff training. The decree says the company will also use optical imaging technology to find and repair leaks faster.
One repair on two turbines at the Kersey/Mewbourne plant will cost $1.15 million, and is expected to reduce VOCs there by 26 tons a year, and methane by 375 tons a year, according to the agreement. Natural gas processing facilities separate impurities and liquids from the gas. Methane also contributes to global warming, multiplying greenhouse gases by dozens of times the rate of carbon dioxide emissions.
Ground-level ozone causes respiratory illness, aggravates asthma, and can worsen existing heart disease.
A related company, DCP Midstream, was fined $5.3 million by New Mexico regulators in 2020 for alleged repeated violations of state air pollution emissions rules. The company reached a settlement of $950,000 with New Mexico regulators in that case.
EPA and state officials say they are focusing tightly on northern Front Range oil and gas operations. The EPA last year reached a $1 million settlement with Noble Energy over alleged violations from oil tank batteries in Weld County floodplains.
DCP said in an email statement that the company started working on some of the fixes in the decree as early as 2019.
“The settlement agreement resolves an administrative enforcement matter with the EPA and the State of Colorado and is also in line with our commitment to responsible environmental management and sustainability,” said DCP manager of public affairs Jeanette Alberg.
The agreement “is consistent with our ongoing efforts to reduce emissions within our company footprint and is a positive outcome for all of our stakeholders,” she said. DCP is also upgrading Colorado facilities not mentioned in the settlement, the company said.
Environmental groups responded with skepticism, noting a recent hearing in front of the Air Quality Control Commission where northern Front Range cities said their own studies showed emissions are not down.
“This just continues to underscore the oil and gas industry’s rampant noncompliance with clean air laws and the terrible toll that continues to be taken on air quality along the Front Range,” said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians.
“Studies have basically confirmed that oil and gas industry emissions have not decreased over the years. It’s good that regulators are pressing DCP, Nichols said, “but it doesn’t seem like industry is truly changing its ways and doing everything it can and should to comply.”
Update: This story was updated at 5:15 p.m. on July 25, 2022, with comments from DCP Operating Company and environmental groups.