Massive Colorado mudslide nearly clobbered gas wells

How much should energy developers plan for natural disaster?

  • An aerial view of the Mesa County mudslide from a plane flown by John Stanley. The mudslide, which occurred Sunday evening, is being measured in miles as opposed to merely feet and was photographed on Monday, May 26, 2014.

    AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images
 

Update: the USGS discovered Wednesday that the slide set off a 2.8 magnitude earthquake at 11:43 pm Sunday. Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service reports that there were no logging activities in the area where the mudslide occurred.

It looked like lava and sounded like a freight train. That’s how locals described the sea of mud and debris that flowed down the green foothills of western Colorado’s Grand Mesa on Sunday afternoon, carving a path of destruction 3 miles long and a half-mile wide. Three men missing from nearby Collbran are presumed dead; rescue efforts have been halted by mud that’s up to 250 feet deep; and though the slide occurred in a rural area away from most homes, it came within 25 feet of a natural gas drilling pad with three active wells.

“It’s an understatement to say it’s massive,” Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey said in a press conference on Monday. For comparison, the mudslide that captured national attention and killed 43 people in Oso, Washington, in March covered one square mile. The Mesa County slide was eight times that size, and the biggest difference appears to have been luck: unlike in Oso, residents of Collbran simply hadn’t built homes in the path of natural disaster.

The county’s oil and gas wells, however, are a different story. Though the mud just barely missed a drill pad operated by Occidental Petroleum Corporation, 16 additional wells sit downhill from the current slide, and Mesa County isn’t in the clear just yet. Temperatures are expected to reach 85 degrees Wednesday afternoon, kicking snowmelt into high gear and increasing the risk of another slide. “There’s an unofficial consensus that an additional slide is likely,” says David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group.

Lynn Highland, a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Landslide Information Center, agrees that a second slide is a real possibility. She also underscores what High Country News contributing editor Judith Lewis-Mernit recently pointed out: There’s no database of the thousands of precarious hillsides looming over homes and infrastructure in the West. The last national map of landslide risk was released in 1982, and as climate change increases the frequency of the freak rainfall and rapid snowmelt that lead to giant mudslides, the map has grown obsolete, Highland says. Plus, despite landslides’ equal capacity for destruction, people don’t give them as much thought as, say, earthquakes. The 2012 budget of the USGS’ landslide center was $3.2 million, compared to the $55 million allocated to its Earthquake Hazards Program.

“The philosophy is to let the locals take care of landslide issues, and some are just better at it than others,” Highland says. “In a way, it’s based on how much money they have to spend.” California, for example, is among the best states for identifying and mapping hazards, partially in response to disasters like 2005’s La Conchita landslide, which killed 10. But very few states can really be described as well-prepared; Colorado falls somewhere in the middle.

Beyond the three-quarters of an inch of rain that fell in Mesa County on Sunday, it’s unclear what exactly caused the edge of Grand Mesa to calve like a glacier. Occidental Petroleum has shut down, drained and depressurized its three wells near the slide as a precaution, and Ludlam says that the USGS, state geologists and oil and gas producers are working together to create contingency plans for the 16 additional wells that could be in the path of a second slide, so they can be shut down quickly if “further instability is identified.”

All in all, Mesa County dodged a bullet: The human and environmental cost of the mudslide could have been much worse. But the situation leaves one wondering what would have happened if the slide had occurred just a mile to the north or west, potentially burying homes or rupturing oil and gas storage tanks. Most drilling equipment doesn’t shut off automatically if it’s compromised: A slide would affect pressure and other factors being monitored electronically, but a worker then has to manually shut the equipment down. Given the suddenness of the recent mudslide, there seems ample room for human error ­– or at least a slight lag – in future natural disasters.

So how much should the risk of natural disasters like mudslides be factored into energy planning? Highland says it’s not her job to decide, but that it’s a question that needs to be addressed. “The earth is not solid. It just starts moving in a fluid way.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2. Video of Collbran mudslide aftermath courtesy EcoFlight/Dom Smith.

High Country News Classifieds
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.