Pollution regulations for coalbed methane wells in Wyoming are severely under-enforced, a state task force says. "Basically, there’s one full-time (inspector) covering all coalbed methane activity (in Wyoming)," says Todd Parfitt, who represented the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on the task force. The department’s lone field inspector monitors 3,924 permitted discharge points from 10,000 active methane wells in the Powder River Basin. With a workload like that, the inspector is likely to see a site only once in five years.

The task force, formed by the Legislature to evaluate the handling of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, concluded that the DEQ needs more inspectors, better laboratory facilities and an improved system for gas companies to report their own pollution levels. The federal Bureau of Land Management will approve 40,000 new wells in the basin over the next decade.

Some environmentalists and landowners say the task force reflects the willingness of Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s administration to address the problems of the methane boom. Wastewater from methane drilling contains sodium and other minerals that pollute irrigation water and threaten fish habitat downstream.

Task force members presented their findings to the Legislature’s minerals committee Nov. 19. They hope that lawmakers will spend some of Wyoming’s projected $1 billion surplus for 2005-06 — revenues from energy and mineral development — to flesh out the DEQ’s skeleton crew.