WyoFile Energy Report

Find the source in Pavillion

Perhaps it’s not where the focus should be. But the fact is there are two factions vigorously competing to make Pavillion their own posterchild.

Some individuals and groups want to use Pavillion’s water pollution case as evidence that hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — poses an inordinate risk to drinking water in Pavillion and elsewhere across the country. And the oil and gas industry would love to point to Pavillion’s water pollution case as evidence of how anti-industry sentiments have wrongly implicated a perfectly safe and properly managed activity.

Both sides were served a heaping portion of red meat last week when the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft report of its sampling and analysis. “The draft report indicates that ground water in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing,” EPA summarized in a press release.

Yet the narrative in the report stopped short of determining a certain link to specific drilling, production and fracking activities in the decades-old natural gas field. And the EPA’s methods and analysis left plenty of opportunity for state and industry officials to add red-ink in the margins of the report; the sampling events were too few, some “blank” control samples turned up contaminated, and the two water monitoring wells drilled at the direction of EPA were sunk awfully close to the actual petroleum production zone, according to industry and state officials.

It appears that after five years of investigation both state and federal agencies are unable — technically and politically — to determine how oil and gas activity in Pavillion interacted with a freshwater aquifer and domestic water wells. Of course the ones who suffer most are the residents who still have no definitive answers to why their water is polluted, or what they’ll do for a long-term solution.

“The report really didn’t say anything that most of us who live here didn’t already know and expect would come out in a report. But it is nice to have it backed up with some scientific data,” Pavillion area resident Jeffrey Locker told WyoFile in a recent interview. “You know, there’s a little bit of frustration (with) the state of Wyoming. We asked them to look at this … and never got anything.”

While Wyoming is taking smart measures to better manage drilling and fracking activities on the front end (baseline testing, monitoring, chemical disclosure requirements, groundwater inventories and the formation of a new groundwater protection program), it’s clear that Wyoming wasn’t prepared to quickly serve its citizens when a problem did arise. That’s why after more than two years of asking for help from the state, residents bypassed Cheyenne and drove to Denver to convince the EPA Region 8 Office to get involved.

“The residents out there contacted EPA and got EPA involved, and by the way, we welcomed that because EPA could bring a lot more resources (than the state),” Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality administrator John Corra told WyoFile. In fact, early in the state’s investigation, DEQ staff often consulted with their EPA counterparts about how to proceed. As for the frustration among Pavillion residents; “We were not able to give them the answers they wanted in the timeframe they wanted,” Corra said.

Locker and his neighbors deserve a conclusive determination of the source of pollution, because their property values have fallen and any new long-term water supply system is going to come with significant costs. If EnCana or its predecessors are responsible for any portion of the polluted drinking water supply, it ought to be held liable to pay its fair share. If it’s proven conclusively that drilling, production and fracking activities did not contribute to the polluted water, then EnCana ought to be thanked for providing much needed drinking water in the interim.

The investigative team may never produce enough scientific evidence to convince the pro- and anti-fracking extremes seeking to claim Pavillion for their own cause. But that shouldn’t deter the state and EPA from pursuing this investigation all the way to the source of pollution. And that decision currently resides with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who recently said he will ask the legislature for more money to continue the investigation.

About a year ago, EPA officials agreed that while the agency will continue to participate in the Pavillion investigation, the state of Wyoming would officially take the lead. Leading the state’s investigation are representatives of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, which are participants in the “Pavillion working group.” Lately, the focus of that group has been to inventory data related to well bore integrity and mud pits in the Pavillion area (many known to be polluted) and analyze the potential contribution from those sources. Corra said the state also intends to conduct much more water sampling in the Pavillion area, including from the two EPA monitoring wells.

Locker and other Pavillion residents participate in the working group, as do representatives from EnCana, EPA and the two tribes from the Wind River Indian Reservation. Locker said he’s pleased, so far, with the group’s efforts, but he does have some concerns about the leadership.

“You tend to see the discussion led in certain ways,” said Locker. “Maybe it’s time to bring in an unbiased facilitator.”

The cohesiveness and integrity of the Pavillion working group will be critical to moving the investigation forward. The potential pitfalls are many, including the fact that both state agencies are currently picking apart the EPA draft report before it goes to peer review by an independent panel of scientists, while at the same time they are stepping in to conduct the next rounds of sampling. Will this next round of sampling led by the state undergo the same public comment and independent peer review process currently underway at EPA? It should.

The fact that there’s so much national attention on Pavillion isn’t a bad thing, despite the inevitable political pressures that come with it. Fracking is just a technology and a tool, and it would be ludicrous to ban a technology based on one, or a handful, of accidents. Just as it would be ludicrous to insist that perforating freshwater aquifers with tens of thousands of new wells each year is done with 99.9 percent integrity and near-zero chance of cross-formation leakage. Go tell it to the fishermen in the Gulf Coast.

In meantime, it’s appropriate to withhold judgment of EPA’s draft report until after the peer review panel is finished. And it’s still OK to scrutinize the work of industry and regulatory entities. After all, both the energy industry and the state have plenty of red ink on their performance records in Wyoming and elsewhere, of late.

It’s no surprise that a recent Office of Inspector General report concluded, “State enforcement programs are underperforming: EPA data indicate that noncompliance is high and the level of enforcement is low. EPA does not consistently hold states accountable for meeting enforcement standards, has not set clear and consistent national benchmarks, and does not act effectively to curtail weak and inconsistent enforcement by states.”

At a press conference in Cheyenne last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that no matter the ultimate results of the Pavillion investigation he will not make fracking the Achilles heel of the oil and gas industry, as some may fear.

“We do believe that fracking can be done and can be done in a safe way,” said Salazar. “That doesn’t mean we won’t make sure water is protected … and we won’t move forward to institute appropriate levels of disclosure.”

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

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Dustin Bleizeffer

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. Oh for a society that understands science. And wells. Wells can be contaminated with any chemical one wants and the source never traced. Anyone who drills a new well can introduce pollution, anyone with a well can destroy a water source. Determining the source can only occur within a certain amount of time after the source is introduced–before large parts of the water table are contaminated. But in the eyes of personal injury lawyers (you remember those folks who get more out the settlement than the person who was wronged) and people who think it’s okay to force others to pay for their problems, it has to be the fracking. Because if it’s not, you can’t sue nature. And someone has to pay, generally the designated “hatee” for the problem. That would be those evil fossil fuel people that we hate so much.

  2. when I lived in Colorado in the 1970s, fracking was a common practice — to sink water wells in the foothills — among other things.
    It was not uncommon for one well drilled and fracked to cause another neighboring well to go dry.
    At that time I sold real estate and researched the issues — it would be bad to sell a property with a well that went dry a month later.
    Technology or not it is difficult to believe that fracking can be totally contained in the strata desired. Look at the Jonah field and read the reports of pollution in the Colorado River. It seems that pollution from the drilling can be detected in the Green and Colorado River.