DENVER (AP) — Authorities are investigating after construction crews discovered a problem with liquid gas pipeline that allowed a carcinogen to seep into the ground near a large creek that feeds into the Colorado River.
The leak near an energy plant in Western Colorado was discovered largely by accident, even though several state and federal agencies are charged with monitoring gas pipelines in the state.
"It's possible that we've narrowly dodged a bullet this time," said Michael Saul, with the National Wildlife Federation.
The breach, however, should be a "wake-up call" for involved agencies, he said, underscoring concerns over the risk of a larger danger.
The problem in Parachute, Colo., has allowed thousands of gallons of benzene and other liquid hydrocarbons to seep into the ground.
"It's actually a good thing they found it," said Tom Droege, a spokesman for Williams, the energy company that runs the pipelines and nearby gas processing plant.
If benzene or other hydrocarbons were to get into Parachute Creek, it could taint drinking water and irrigation channels, affecting even the Colorado River.
Authorities say the creek isn't at risk, noting that affected groundwater is flowing away from the creek and that barriers have been set up to minimize any potential contamination.
Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Williams and WPX Energy, which owns the property, are investigating.
The problem with the line — which investigators characterize officially as a "seep" — so far has generated more than 5,900 gallons of loose liquid hydrocarbons and nearly 180,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater. And many see it as a close call that officials should take as a serious threat.
At least five state and federal agencies play a role in regulating and monitoring pipelines in Colorado, an overlap that causes obvious confusion, illustrated by the accidental discovery of a problem that otherwise could have gone unchecked.
Williams workers, looking to expand a pipeline near the Parachute Creek Gas Plant, were doing routine soil evaluations when they found the presence of unknown hydrocarbons, a find that eventually led to the discovery of the problem with the line. Before that there had been no warning signs.
Unless leaked liquid natural gas or oil "would have come up to the surface, or a pipeline lost pressure, there's no other way to my knowledge to know if there's a leak," said Droege, the company spokesman.
Gas companies can't easily check the integrity of buried pipelines, which can corrode and eventually leak. For its part, Williams constantly monitors pressure levels, since a drop can signal problems, company officials say.