Weld County residents who worry their well water has been contaminated by oil and gas activity can now put those concerns to the test, thanks to a new lab instrument the county purchased earlier this year.
County officials announced Monday that its $145,000 gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer instrument is ready to use. The highly sensitive instrument will test for compounds commonly found in petroleum and hydraulic fracturing formulas, said Mark Thomas, a chemist for the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment.
“So we’re not only interested in chemicals being used, but just the exploration that could be impacting groundwater in general,” Thomas said.
Testing down to one part-per-billion for volatile organic compounds such as benzene and toluene, the spectrometer will detect compounds that are already regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and tested for in municipal water systems, Thomas said.
He said he doesn’t expect the instrument to uncover water contamination, but it will provide residents with data that they can track in future years to see if oil and gas activity has any long-term effects on their water. At this point, he said, the county has not identified a plan to track compound levels itself, but it is a future possibility.
Weld County commissioners approved of the instrument’s purchase in April, after the county was granted money from its newly formed Federal Mineral Lease Board, which allocates money collected from oil and gas production on public lands.
While the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission does similar testing, commissioners have said they feel the instrument will provide piece of mind and an additional layer of security for residents who are concerned about the level of oil and gas activity in Weld County.
“This instrument provides valuable information and will not only help protect public health but also provide assurance,” Weld County commissioners chairman Sean Conway said in a statement.
Thomas said about 15 residences have been on a waiting list to get their water tested, but he is not yet sure how many calls to expect in the coming weeks.
If a resident’s groundwater does show any sign of contamination, he said the lab will first verify its results with a second test and then have a separate lab do the test. If the results are consistent, Thomas said, then staff will help residents contact the COGCC, but Weld County will not act as a regulating authority.
Cheryl Darnell, lab manager for Weld County’s Department of Planning and Environmental Health, said her staff is also aware of the sensitivity of the device, which in some cases is almost too accurate.
If residents mow their lawn before testing, for example, then their groundwater sample could show detection of petroleum.
“That’s why we are the ones doing all of the sampling,” Darnell said.