Muddy waters

The state is suing the owner of a waste-treatment plant west of Maybell, saying the facility has been out of compliance with hazardous-material testing regulations for the past several years.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment claims that Elk Springs Recycle and Recovery, owned by Phil Bethell of Craig, has failed to conduct random samples of oil and gas industry waste that the facility treats.

The Colorado Attorney Gen-eral's Office will be in court in Craig on Wednesday for a preliminary injunction hearing. The attorney general intends to request that the court order Elk Springs to hire an independent contractor to take and test random samples of the waste at the site.

The Attorney General's Office is also investigating whether sampling reports submitted to the CODPHE were forged, Deputy Attorney General Jason Dunn confirmed Wednesday.

Fred Dowsett, compliance coordinator for the CODPHE Hazardous Material and Waste Management Division, alleged Elk Springs Recycle and Recovery submitted testing reports that cited a laboratory in Butte, Mont., which has been closed for years.

Bethell denied ever knowingly submitting false reports. He has always tested in compliance with the law, he said.

"If I had any inkling or suspicion it was phony I wouldn't have sent it," Bethell said.

One thing Bethell and the CODPHE agreed on was that the business and the company have had problems for years.

"All I can say is for years the Department of Health has been trying to ensnare us in the details," Bethell said.

"They seem to be overly critical of everything that goes on the Western Slope, and yet we run a squeaky-clean operation."

Bethell purchased the facility in 1989. It treats drilling mud -- a brine solution by-product of the oil and gas recovery process. The solution is evaporated in holding ponds until all that is left is a salt material.

The CODPHE has no evidence that harmful materials have been disposed of at the site, Dowsett said.

By law, the facility is required to randomly test the waste when it is hauled in and when it is evaporating in the ponds.

In December, the CODPHE sent a letter to Elk Springs Recycle and Recovery, asking it to agree to additional testing, Dowsett said. When the company refused, the state filed suit.

"The main point of this case is to make sure hazardous waste hasn't been disposed of there," Dowsett said.

The most common type of hazardous material that might be in the waste would be solvents and automobile waste, such as degreaser, he said. Environmental effects from the improper disposal of such waste most likely would affect surface or ground water. But because Elk Springs is a low-population area, public exposure should be limited, Dowsett said.

Before the facility's creation, brine water was often dumped down washes or simply pumped out of the wellhead. The salty water could get into farmers' fields and harm the soil, he said.

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