Oil-field dumping ponds - closed temporarily by the state this month because of wastewater overflow - have been reopened on condition Grand County acts immediately to beef up security at the site.
Operations at the Keystone-Wallace disposal pit in Lisbon Valley, San Juan County, were suspended by the Utah Department of Natural Resources because of concerns about potential contamination and unregulated dumping of saline water from oil and mineral drilling and mining operations.Grand County holds a state permit to operate the produced water disposal facility in the Big Indian mining district about 35 miles southeast of Moab. The facility was developed during the past two decades in a 45-acre area now owned by Blanding Construction contractor Jerry Holliday.
Years of brackish water, drill mud and crude-oil residue built up to produce an overflow from the main cell system into an unapproved pit at the site in April, prompting a state inspection and written order for Grand County to suspend operations.
In the May 2 suspension order, Dianne R. Nielson, director of the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, also listed concerns about site security, unauthorized dumping, adequacy of monitoring wells, unloading practices and the handling of waste crude at the site.
Nielson recommended fencing the area with a locked-gate system and instituting a system to limit access to only authorized users.
The Keystone pits are accessible by paved roads through La Sal from Colorado to the east and U.S. 191 from the west. Officials said use is based on the honor system; no one is there to check for a disposal permit or see who dumps what or pays the fee.
Nielson also questioned the design of groundwater monitor wells and recommended installing several new wells "to assure proper leak detection."
"The suspension was because of the high level of fluid in the pit. The other issues are still critical, but the division realizes it may take a little more time for the county to come into compliance," Nielson said Friday.
"Failure to correct these concerns could be grounds for us either to suspend operations at the pit again or grounds for us to require that they cease operations altogether," she said.
The disposal facility, one of about a dozen approved to operate in Utah, reopened May 15 after Grand County zoning and facilities inspector Dave Warner reported to the state that the salt-water pond returned to a safe level through evaporation.
Grand County commissioners took steps at a recent regular meeting to increase security and fees at the site, voting unanimously to have some type of barrier erected to restrict use after daylight hours until the county can make permanent security arrangements.
The motion by Commissioner Sam Cunningham was amended to include approval for a dumping-fee increase. Commissioners will decide on the amount later.
Users were to be given 30 days notice in writing before changes are final. Commissioners also instructed contractor Ralph Ramstetter, who informally monitors the facility, to put up notice at the pit about impending restrictions and new fees.
"Basically, what we're doing is letting people know our intentions. So I think that's a step in the right direction,"said Commission Chairman David Knuteson.
The commission also agreed to organize a "Keystone pit day" for officials and the public to share information about the operation and tour the site. Cunningham said the informational meeting and tour may be helpful in deliberations on a proposal that the county buy the disposal site.
County records show about 50 companies have used the Keystone facility since the county agreed in 1984 to take over operations from a private mining company. About eight companies currently use the pits regularly, said Deputy County Clerk Peggy Taylor.
Knuteson suggested doubling fees, which currently range from $25 to $50 per load, to pay for increased security.
The commission's actions were in response to reports from sanitarian Jim Adamson, of the Southeastern Utah Health District, and Ramstetter, who collects dumping fees for the county on a part-time basis.
Adamson reviewed the states concerns and stressed the need for security, especially with governmental regulations on waste disposal becoming more stringent and companies running out of places to dump hazardous materials inexpensively.
"The county needs to look at security because everybody's out there trying to get rid of toxics . . . more and more, illegally," Adamson said.
"If I had a truckload of toxic waste I'd been given $200,000 to get rid of, I could dump in your site for $25 - if I pay you," he told commissioners.
"If I was going to dump, I could get to the site easy, bring in a 500- to 1,000-gallon tanker, hit after dark and avoid any weigh stations in between."
Adamson also advised establishing a separate site for dumping mud to keep the main cells from filling so fast. He said the pits get heavy use and more ponds are needed.