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Colorado Faces Oil Boom "Death Sentence" for Soil, Eyes Microbe Fix

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Colorado's intensifying oil and gas boom is taking a toll on soil - 200 gallons spilled per day seeping into once-fertile ground - that experts say could be ruinous.

The state's approach has been to try to compel companies to excavate and haul the worst muck to landfills.

But with support from state regulators, oil companies increasingly are proposing to clean contaminated soil on site using mixing machinery and microbes. This may be cheaper for the industry - and could save and restore soil.

But it is not proven.

"I'm comfortable with it. It is another example of innovation and opportunity by the oil and gas and service industries," Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission director Matt Lepore said. "The whole point is that it is safe, that the harm to the environment has been minimized."    

At least 716,982 gallons (45 percent) of the petroleum chemicals spilled during the past decade have stayed in the ground after initial cleanup - contaminating soil, sometimes spreading into groundwater, a Denver Post analysis of COGCC data found.

That's about one gallon of toxic liquid every eight minutes penetrating soil. In addition, drillers churn up 135 to 500 tons of dirt with every new well, some of it soaked with hydrocarbons and laced with potentially toxic minerals and salts. And heavy trucks crush soil, suffocating the delicate subsurface ecosystems that traditionally made Colorado's Front Range suitable for farming.                  
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