The latest development in the years-long controversy over poor drinking water quality outside Pavillion will play out on Tuesday when state regulators will hold a public meeting to discuss a new strategy.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will hold a public “working group” meeting from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, at the Pavillion Recreation Center in Pavillion.

“The purpose of this meeting, is to allow the working groups to share and gather information that will hopefully lead to a solution of these water quality issues,” DEQ administrator John Corra said in a prepared statement this week.

In recent months, the state agencies have formed two new working groups. One will focus on the integrity of active and inactive well bores in the area as a potential source of hydrocarbons and other contaminants found in several domestic water wells in recent years. The other group will focus on “mud pits” — which are used to hold mud and drilling fluids while an oil or natural gas well is drilled — as a potential source.

Corra said that initially only two among some 27 known mud pits in the area were thought to be polluted. But the agency is going to take a closer look.

“There was some question of, well, could there have been some seepage from those 25 (mud pits) that could be a source? So we’re going to take a look at that,” Corra told WyoFile in January.

This new emphasis on pits and well bores may please local residents as well as industry. Residents say it’s essential to understand the source of the pollution to avoid long-term health dangers. And the oil and gas industry claims that the drinking water contamination has been unfairly pinned on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Neighbors suspect the contamination does has something to do with industrial wells interspersed throughout the area where oil and gas has been developed over several decades. Most recently, EnCana Oil & Gas USA bought the field from Tom Brown Inc. in 2004 and performed several frack treatments on the wells.

However, some residents say fracking may not be the single cause of the water problem, or even a contributor.

“There is no clear picture of what happens underneath here. That’s the problem,” said Jeffrey Locker, who has relied on bottled water since August when EPA recommended his family not drink from their domestic water well.

Locker said there are many potential sources of contamination, from “mud pits,” to drilling and fracking.

“We weren’t pointing fingers at (the oil gas industry). We were just saying ‘There’s something wrong with our water. These wells are going bad. What’s going on?’” said Locker.

EPA became involved in the investigation in 2009 after the Pavillion neighbors complained that the Wyoming DEQ and other state agencies were dragging their feet in finding answers. EPA has conducted several rounds of water testing and groundwater analysis in the past two years. EPA claims to remain a key partner in the investigation, and says it has made no certain determination as to the source of petroleum compounds found in several wells, nor has it ruled out fracking as a potential source.

“EPA has made no determinations about the sources of contaminants found in domestic wells,” EPA Region 8 spokesman Richard Mylott told WyoFile via email.

But Pavillion neighbors are getting mixed signals on the matter.

Corra has said he believes analysis derived from EPA’s work indeed rules out fracking as a source.

And, Corra added, “It’s in the state’s interest to take the lead going forward on this.”

A major concern among residents in the area, according to Locker and others, is whether the state will stop short of determining the source of contamination.

“I’m not sure we will be able to find a source. That’s the intent; either find a source or rule out potential sources,” said Corra.

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Published on February 25, 2011

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