Family told Oil and Gas Commission need not conduct more tests in contaminated water well fight

DENVER -- Contaminated well water remains a concern for a Colorado family after state regulators ruled Wednesday that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) need not conduct more tests despite being unable to locate an abandoned BP oil well on the family's property.

"They know their [water] well's tested positive for benzene seven times in a row," attorney Eric Voogt said on behalf of Gary and Kari Ohlson at a special petition review hearing at COGCC offices Wednesday morning. "Part of this agency's duty -- a big part of their duty -- is to enforce the rules, to protect the public from oil and gas impacts."

COGCC concluded in 2015 that "there is no evidence that the occurrence of the benzene in your water well is due to oil & gas activity in your area or on your property."

Contact7 first reported on the Ohlson's case in November 2017 and discovered, through open records requests, email correspondence from a BP strategy manager to a COGCC specialist which said, in part, that they wanted "to see if we can find a GC signature for the benzene that would point us away from oil and gas." The COGCC specialist responded by saying, "We will be glad to assist you in any way."

Leading up to Contact7's reporting, a Golden hydrogeologist completed an analysis of the family's case pro bono and determined that COGCC jumped to conclusions too quickly and that "past investigations by COGCC have been too limited."

The Ohlsons and their attorney requested in Wednesday's hearing that COGCC -- or perhaps BP -- conduct additional subsurface soil testing and actually locate the oil well that's been plugged and abandoned since the late 1970s. The hearing officer, however, concluded that COGCC has already done everything it's reasonably required to do.

"It is not necessary for COGCC to determine the specific source of contamination of every water well in the State of Colorado," Assistant Attorney General David Beckstrom said on behalf of COGCC's staff. "What is required is to determine whether or not those impacts are from oil and gas operations. Over the course of its investigation, staff has reasonably concluded that that is not the case here."

BP's hired legal counsel agreed with the state's assessment at the hearing.

The Ohlsons had hoped additional testing would determine the source of the benzene contamination, which is still unclear. Despite the ruling Wednesday, they're going to appeal to COGCC commissioners directly at their September board meeting and remind them of the commission's dual mission to promote the development of oil and gas in Colorado and protect consumers too.

"And here, I believe they're siding way too heavily with oil and gas," Voogt said.

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