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Colorado Floods: Thousands of Gas, Oil Wells May Contaminate Water

After a week of devastating flooding washed away roads and destroyed buildings, Colorado residents are now facing the threat of contaminated waters.

The northeastern corner of Colorado, which contains numerous gas and oil wells and active drilling sites, has been inundated with rushing water.

Gary Wockner, Colorado program director for Clean Water Action, said it will take days for the flood waters to recede enough to assess the contamination damage adequately.

"The biggest concerns are around the contamination of surface water," Wockner said. "Once those chemicals hit flood water, they get across a large swath of the landscape."

He said that at least a thousand gas wells have reportedly been flooded. The Denver Business Journal reported that at least two storage tanks were found floating in flood waters. Weld County alone, where significant flooding has taken place, is home to more than 18,000 gas and oil wells.

Water treatment and sewage centers have also been flooded, which has led to boiling advisories for some mountain communities where the initial surge took place. Boil advisories used to clean water in other contamination zones won't work for areas that may have been affected by leaked fracking chemicals or gas and oil well overflows. Wockner said the best way to avoid the health hazards associated with these containments is to avoid the affected water and by drinking filtered tap or bottled water.

Genevieve Marquez, left, and Miranda Woodard help salvage and clean property in an area inundated after days of flooding, in Hygiene, Colo., Monday, Sept. 16, 2013. Colorado mountain towns cut off for days by massive flooding slowly reopened Monday, to reveal cabins toppled, homes ripped from their foundations and everything covered in a thick layer of muck. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Mountainous communities get their water from those mountains, but containments can enter rivers and flow across the counties to impact people with well water.

The flooding has already claimed eight lives, Micki Trost, public information officer with the Colorado Department of Emergency Management, confirmed to More than 500 people remain unaccounted for as of 10 a.m. EDT Tuesday.

American Red Cross Volunteer and Public Information Officer Larry Fortmuller is on the ground in Colorado, receiving people who are being airlifted to Red Cross shelters. At the shelters, people are provided with clean bottled water, food, health care, mental health care and access to computers to connect with loved ones. They have been reuniting families and helping to take care of those people who have no where to go.

On Sept. 16, the Fort Collins, Colo., the Red Cross center where Fortmuller is working received more than 300 people and 200 pets. He said the helicopters were able to run for only about half a day because of rain and cloud cover, but now that the rain has stopped they are expecting to bring in even more people on Tuesday, Sept. 17.

According to Meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski, conditions will improve for rescue efforts throughout the week. Stray showers may pass through the area Tuesday evening, with greater shower chances later in the day on Wednesday. These passing showers or thunderstorms should not be persistent or heavy, however. Skies will remain partly sunny but will clear up significantly after Thursday morning. It should stay clear and dry through to most of Sunday.

"This is another call to prepare for disaster," Fortmuller said. "I've heard it over and over again, people who say 'I never thought it would happen to us.' I heard it in Moore, I heard it in Boston, I heard it following Sandy. Nobody expects to need the Red Cross to come to their community."

Because of the breadth of the affected area in Colorado the Red Cross is requiring supplies "by the truckload."

"It's only a 10-minute helicopter ride to the emergency shelters, but when you have no food, no water, no electricity... it's tough," Fortmuller said of those still stranded in the disaster area. He said many people are unable to use their cell phones and are "really isolated" as they wait for rescue.