Power & Water

EPA Pavillion report stokes fire over fracking

An Environmental Protection Agency draft report on Thursday confirms that chemicals commonly used in hydraulic fracturing in the extraction of natural gas and oil indeed contributed to the contamination of drinking water near Pavillion — a tiny farm town in the central portion of the state. But it stopped short of making the link to any specific hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — or any other specific drilling activity in an area where oil and gas drilling has occurred for decades.

The Environmental Protection Agency has determined that the water of Pavillion, Wyoming has been contamined with chemicals that are associated in the extraction of natural gas and oil, but they stopped short of linking the problem to any “fracking” taking place in or around area. (Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency — click to enlarge)

The report was hailed by the environmental community and industry watchdog groups, which proclaimed validation in their warnings that fracking can pollute drinking water near Pavillion and elsewhere in the nation. “For years the oil and gas industry has argued that there is no chance that fracking will contaminate ground water sources, but this report appears to be a smoking gun against that claim,” Western Resource Advocates’ lands program director Mike Chiropolos said in a prepared statement.

The oil and gas industry slammed the report as “reckless,” “unsubstantiated,” and “irresponsible.” In fact, state and industry officials had asked EPA to hold the draft report until an “independent peer review” was conducted, according to the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, because industry and state leaders had been compiling a list of concerns with EPA’s investigation.

The draft report is now available for a 45-day public comment period, after which a 30-day peer-review process will begin “by a panel of independent scientists,” according to EPA.

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming (PAW) issued a statement just hours after the draft report was issued Thursday, suggesting EPA has been intentionally dishonest in its Pavillion investigation.

“The draft report coming out of the EPA today is reckless,” PAW president Bruce Hinchey said. “Let me be clear, the EPA’s findings indicate that there is no connection between oil and natural gas operations and impacts to domestic water wells. Unsubstantiated statements coming from the EPA today stretch the data and cause unwarranted alarm and concern about a proven technology that allows our industry to safely extract oil and natural gas. The EPA’s announcement is irresponsible and leads us to call into question its motives.”

Fracking is the process of pumping a mixture of water, sand and some chemicals under pressure to force open pathways in gas- and oil-bearing rock to expedite the flow of oil and gas to the well bore. Although fracking has been in use for decades, the process has gone through major technological advancements, and it is essential to nearly all of today’s new drilling in the U.S.

The pervasive use of fracking and the increasing proximity of drilling operations to communities across the nation has helped fuel a fierce battle between citizen groups and the oil and gas industry. Some local governments have called for a ban on fracking, which industry sees as a real threat to a multi-billion dollar domestic drilling boom. In fact, EPA’s multiple sampling method in Pavillion is part of the agency’s larger national study into whether fracking can potentially contaminate drinking water.

EPA workers take samples.
EPA workers take samples in January 2010. Gov. Matt Mead was among several public and private officials who called into question the quality of the agency’s sampling and analysis. (Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency — click to enlarge)

In Wyoming, the oil and gas industry has long enjoyed great support for fracking from the state’s highest officials. But the Cowboy State was also the first in the nation to establish disclosure rules for fracking chemicals.

On Thursday, Gov. Matt Mead and Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor Tom Doll downplayed the validity of EPA’s draft report, calling into question the quality of the agency’s sampling and analysis. Doll even suggested that contaminates found in the drinking water aquifer could have actually come from the two deep test wells that EPA had constructed in order to conduct its investigation.

“More sampling is needed to rule out surface contamination or the process of building these test wells as the source of the concerning results,” Doll said in a prepared statement issued by the governor’s office.

Doll’s suspicion regarding contamination from the monitoring wells actually underscores concerns from local residents that oil and gas wells, too, could contaminate the drinking water aquifer. However, an EnCana Oil & Gas USA spokesman told WyoFile that the proper construction and integrity of the natural gas wells in Pavillion have been validated by the company while the construction and integrity of EPA’s monitoring wells have not.

“If you do it properly, you shouldn’t have a problem. But the question is, did they do it properly?” EnCana spokesman Doug Hock said.

Yet the reason EPA is investigating polluted water in Pavillion is because area residents said they asked the same question of EnCana about its wells, and they were stonewalled. They complained they got pretty much the same treatment when they went to the state of Wyoming for help. Several Pavillion area residents had claimed their drinking water wells went foul almost overnight when EnCana Oil & Gas began drilling and re-tooling gas wells in close proximity to their homes. After convincing EPA to lead an investigation, and a subsequent toxicology review of the drinking water, residents in the area were told to avoid drinking the water and to use ventilation when showering.

Now, many environmental and industry watchdog groups hail EPA’s newest draft report as a scientifically defensible link between fracking and polluted drinking water.

The Wyoming Outdoor Council issued a statement noting that EPA’s draft findings suggest it is “more than likely that the contamination is a result of natural gas development.

“The EPA specifically mentions a probable connection to hydraulic fracturing,” Wyoming Outdoor Council continued. “We’re finally at a point where the types of chemicals cannot be denied; meanwhile the probable sources of the contamination look to be oil and gas drilling activities.”

In a press release, EPA stated, “The draft report indicates that ground water in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing. … The draft findings announced today are specific to Pavillion, where the fracturing is taking place in and below the drinking water aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water wells – production conditions different from those in many other areas of the country.”

Sampling fluids
EPA workers gather in early 2010 to test fluids collected from groundswater around Pavillion. Several Pavillion residents said their water wells had gone foul as soon as EnCana Oil & Gas began drilling in proximity to their homes, and convinced the EPA to begin an investigation. (Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency — click to enlarge)

EPA Region 8 public affairs specialist Richard Mylott provided WyoFile with this additional comment regarding the draft report:

“EPA’s deep monitoring wells found synthetic chemicals, such as alcohols and glycols, that are consistent with data Encana has provided on chemicals used in their fracturing fluids. EPA’s analysis of information indicates that production wells near EPA’s two monitoring wells were hydraulically fractured in 2004 or later. EPA has also identified some production wells in the vicinity where available records show shallow surface casing or insufficient cement, which can create a pathway for movement of fracturing or production fluids.”

Hock said a coalition of industry, state and environmental stakeholders in the Pavillion case had compiled a long list of questions and concerns about EPA’s investigation in recent months, so the results of Thursday’s draft report were not a surprise.

“It’s interesting. In the press release they (EPA) put out they used words like ‘likely associated.’ It’s really not a conclusion,” Hock told WyoFile. “They’re hedging their bets, and if I were in their shoes I would, too.”

On Thursday, Gov. Mead repeated his earlier call for a more thorough study of the Pavillion case. “We do not want to predetermine the outcome of further research, but do feel the need for more thoroughness. I want to know what happened in Pavillion and feel the responsible approach is to do more testing,” Mead said.

EPA’s Richard Mylott told WyoFile, “We hope to continue to work with the state, tribes, other agencies and Encana to address issues in the Pavillion field. Our highest priority is to ensure a long-term source of clean drinking water.”

Visit the EPA’s Pavillion ground water investigation site to download a copy of the draft report.

PAW listed three specific concerns with EPA’s report:

1) EPA’s monitoring wells were drilled into gas bearing zones (~900 ft and ~700ft) so the fact that methane, benzene and other hydrocarbons were detected at high levels is not surprising.

2) After several rounds of testing of private domestic water wells, only one organic compound was found to exceed State or Federal Drinking Water standards. This compound is an additive in plastics and one of the most commonly detected organic compounds in water.

3) The EPA’s results raise serious quality assurance issues. A peer-review would highlight this major issue. For example:

3a) The results between the EPA’s domestic water wells and the EPA’s deep monitoring wells are being confused. Tris (2-butoxyethyl) phosphate and 2-BE are two different compounds. Tris (2-butoxyethyl) phosphate was found in drinking water wells. This chemical is a common fire retardant used in association with plastics and plastic components used in drinking water wells. Again, it is not 2-BE. Tris (2-butoxyethyl) phosphate isn’t created by the combination of 2-BE and phosphate under the conditions found in Pavillion. 2BE-phosphate would break down in nature to its component parts; not the other way around.

3b) In the EPA’s deep monitoring wells, one in eight samples had a detection of 2-BE. Two other EPA labs that measured for the same compound did not detect it in duplicate samples. Inconsistency in detection combined with the fact that this compound is present in nearly all household and laboratory cleaning agents makes it just as likely that it’s from sample contamination as hydraulic fracturing.

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

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. After several days of researching this issue I agree with the first posting and Shannon. After the shouting dies down I believe Item 6 of the EPA report’s Conclusions will prevail as the cause of the well water pollution. Oil and gas well completion reports are available on the WY Oil and Gas Commission website. The EPA report notes that the cement bond/variable density logs show sporadic or no cement in several wells in the area. The cb/vd logs are sent to WOGC on every completed well. What WOGC did with them is not clear. WOGC is not responsible for protecting the aquifer, the Department of Environmental Quality is. Apparently those logs were never forwarded to DEQ or they would have done something, wouldn’t they?

  2. As someone who just read this report…in all reality it doesnt lead back to the process of fracking at all. What it leads back to is a systematic poor job of cementing the production wells. This really is nothing new.

  3. Thanks, Dustin – appreciate the feedback. My comment wasn’t just a critique of your story but really of most of the media coverage of Pavillion last week. Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure of getting to know the Lockers and Fentons. And really, it has been my pleasure. These are two of the nicest families you will ever have the chance to meet. They are pure Wyoming – natural-born leaders who put family and community first. John Fenton’s quote on behalf of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens – a quote that made it around the world last week- wasn’t about how Encana continues to shirk ANY responsibility for what has happened. It wasn’t about how the gas industry – or its political supporters like Inhofe & Barrasso – always try to strongarm regulators to get them to back down. It wasn’t about how the state, after years of inaction, is now involved in spades, just at the request of the industry, not citizens. His quote could have been about any of those things. But it wasn’t. It was a simple quote thanking EPA for doing its job and hoping that we can now focus on addressing the contamination and public health concerns. That could have been the focus of the media coverage, but it wasn’t.

  4. Dustin, this is a great article. But what is missing are the voices of the local residents in Pavillion whose water and health has been impacted. No matter the cause of the contamination, they deserve answers and solutions. In the midst of political jockeying by all sides, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are people in this state that cannot drink their water and whose health is being impacted on a daily basis. In my opinion, that is all that matters at the end of the day.

    Editor’s note: Thanks Shannon. Point taken. I had a long conversation with Pavillion area resident Jeffrey Locker this morning, and I’m going through the audio now. I will add his comments to this post, and there is more to follow. I can leave you with one quote from Locker for now: “This wasn’t a fracking investigation. This was a ground water investigation that led back to fracking.” Locker also said he agrees with the governor’s call for continued and more thorough investigation in the matter. — Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief