Environmental agency shuns watchdog, citing critical news story

WYOMING -- The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality canceled a meeting with a watchdog group in December after a news story cited the group’s criticism of a pending pollution permit and public documents the group obtained about oilfield waste discharges.

DEQ called off a meeting scheduled with the Powder River Basin Resource Council on Dec. 7 after agency officials saw a WyoFile story in which the group criticized an agency proposal. 

In written comments earlier last year, PRBRC and two other groups challenged the agency’s proposal to make a “major modification” to a pollution discharge permit issued to Aethon Energy Operating LLC.

The modification would remove effluent limits on, and sampling requirements for, radium, barium and zinc and end routine testing for a host of other pollutants discharged from the Moneta Divide gas- and oilfield. The groups’ comments on the proposed modification appeared in a Dec. 7 WyoFile article titled “After exceeding pollution limits, oilfield operator seeks relaxed permit.” 

The article also cited public documents about Moneta Divide pollution and included statements and comments from the DEQ. The nonprofit PRBRC obtained the documents through a records request and shared them with WyoFile.

Jill Morrison, PRBRC’s former executive director, had secured a Dec. 7 meeting with agency personnel to discuss the pollution permit and “the status of remediation activities” Aethon might have accomplished at degraded oilfield pollution discharge sites.

After the story was published, however, the DEQ backed out.

“My apologies,” Jason Thomas, a water quality manager at DEQ, wrote to Morrison on Dec. 7, “I’m going to have to hold off on today’s call. I didn’t realize the video call was concurrent with a published article on the (pollution discharge) facility (WyoFile 12/7/2021).”

The proposed modified discharge permit was under review, Thomas indicated in his email to Morrison. “Until a final action is taken on the proposed permit modification for WY0002062, any questions on it will have to be routed through our communications person…”

The response miffed Morrison, who said her group has routinely met with DEQ personnel who helped explain the agency’s duties and actions. “I don’t know how to explain it,” Morrison said of the cancellation.

“I was quite surprised when he emailed us,” Morrison said. “It seems like a reprimand: ‘Oh no, you got the press involved so were not talking to you.’”

DEQ rejected that assertion. “The cancellation had nothing specifically to do with your article,” agency spokesman Keith Guille told WyoFile.

The meeting with PRBRC would have occurred “outside the public comment period,” he said. DEQ accepted comments on the permit modification for 30 days through Nov. 15 and received four. In addition to PRBRC, the Wyoming Outdoor Council and the Natural Resources Defense Council signed the comment letter WyoFile quoted.

“We have to have a beginning [and] end to these comment periods,” Guille said. “We just felt while that (permit modification) was pending it wouldn’t be appropriate to open that up to additional public comment.”

Powder River sought a get-together “regarding the WYPDES permit and the status of remediation activities,” according to an email Morrison sent the agency to set the meeting. “We had an appointment to visit with DEQ about the permit, the process, what’s been going on with the cleanup,” Morrison said.

“I’m quite sure we have met in the past with policy makers on permit issues during a time a permit is pending,” she said. It’s part of the group’s ongoing inquiries of and engagement with regulators and policy makers, she said. “We’ve got some more information, now we have more questions,” she said, characterizing the line of questioning she wanted to pursue.

Being canceled following a news story was a new experience, she said. “In my 30 years (with PRBRC), I’ve never had this happen that I can recall.”

She told DEQ there was no coordination between WyoFile and her group regarding the timing of the story, which cited documents and did not include any interviews with the groups questioning the permit modification.

“We did not know that an article was going to be published today (Dec.7) but we have been sharing information with (the) press on the ongoing issues regarding discharges from the Moneta Divide field,” she wrote the agency when the meeting was canceled.

WyoFile asked Gov. Mark Gordon’s office whether meeting cancellation represented a rebuff of constituent engagement as a result of the group’s distribution of public records. Policy Director Renny MacKay rejected that idea.

The cancellation was “…based on whether the content of the meeting was proper under the Administrative Procedures Act…” MacKay wrote in an email.

“…(T)here was a pending decision coming from the staff involved in the meeting and the period for public comment had closed,” MacKay wrote. “After speaking with the Department of Environmental Quality staff I believe the cancellation of this meeting had nothing to do with (PRBRC’s release of) public records.”

“We know that DEQ will be more than willing to meet with members of the public after the permit is finalized,” MacKay wrote to WyoFile.

Talking to DEQ specialists regarding technical aspects of oilfield discharges and their control is critical to understanding what pollution Wyoming allows to be released into its waters, Morrison said.

In addition to removing effluent limits on and sampling requirements for radium, barium and zinc flowing from the field into Boysen Reservoir and the Wind and Bighorn rivers, the modified permit would end routine testing requirements for a host of other compounds: aluminum, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, silver and thallium, according to the DEQ proposal.

“We used to be able to talk to the staff,” Morrison said. “I have great respect for the (public relations) people (at DEQ) but they don’t know the technical issues.

“They’re trying to manage the public relations and we’re trying to get to the bottom of ‘why isn’t this permit protecting our water,’” Morrison said.

Discharges flow into waterways above Boysen Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to communities downstream, Morrison said. “The public is often a forgotten interest when the requirement for the DEQ is to protect the public interest and resources.”

In a follow-up email regarding the cancellation, Morrison wrote the DEQ saying her group is “interested in understanding more about DEQ’s actions on ongoing clean-up issues and permit actions.”

So far, “I’ve heard nothing back,” Morrison said.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.