This wellhead is among hundreds of wells that have been drilled in the Pavillion oil and gas field in central Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The report that the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality issued in November intends to begin closing the door on questions over what happened with Pavillion’s water, but did not take into account outside science saying that door should not be closed so quickly.

An earlier article, published by Stanford University scientists in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, stated hydraulic fracturing had impacted drinking water in the Pavillion area, and called for further investigation. The article was not taken into account in the final DEQ Pavillion report, because it was published and sent to DEQ after the comment period on the agency’s report had ended, officials said.

But the state report and the journal article come to dramatically different conclusions, and differ on key technical issues. It is the DEQ’s ultimate stance on those technical issues that underpin the agency’s conclusion on Pavillion. DEQ’s Nov. 10 report concluded that hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – for natural gas production is unlikely to have contaminated private wells in Pavillion, as some residents have charged. That conclusion absolves Encana, the energy giant who took over the Pavillion area gas fields in 2004, of major cleanup responsibilities going forward.

Fundamental problems of technical standards and regulatory jurisdiction underlie the conflicting scientific assessments. The state report and the independent scientists disagree for instance, over what water, deep underground, should appropriately be called a drinking water resource.

Meanwhile, holes in federal and state environmental law, exempting oil and gas production, means that federal standards that define and protect drinking water resources didn’t apply in Pavillion.

And the fact that the Pavillion wells in question are private wells, not part of a public water system, means there are limits to federal authority in the matter.

The state report may function as the final official word. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, though critical of conclusions in the state’s draft version, withdrew from investigating Pavillion in 2013, leaving the state in charge.

Nationally, there remains lack of consensus about the environmental impact of “fracking” to produce gas – a technique that has brought welcome revenue to Wyoming and been largely responsible for U.S. “energy independence” via the natural gas boom of the last several years. Researchers say politics have interfered with drawing firm scientific conclusions about the hazards. A recent national news report highlighted questions over whether EPA’s top officials revised a key study to play down the risks of drinking water pollution from fracking.

In Wyoming, bitter disagreement continues over Pavillion, as demonstrated by conflicting responses to the Nov. 10 final report issued by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. The report was greeted with applause from industry and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, and disdain from some local residents and their advocates.

“This report is the final definitive chapter fully revealing that anti-fracking activists’ claims about Pavillion are without merit,” wrote the website Energy in Depth, a publication of the industry lobby group Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Pavillion area resident Louis Meeks, one of the first to raise an outcry about his water quality, felt differently. The latest DEQ report is “bull****,” he said. He feels the outcome of the investigation has been preordained since Wyoming took over from the EPA. “The state’s not going to do anything. They’re trying to sweep it under the rug. And Encana knows exactly what they’ve done out here,” Meeks said. He insists his once-clean water started to reek of diesel in 2004, just after fracking began 500 feet from his house.

Gov. Matt Mead welcomed the DEQ report. “From the beginning I have believed it was in everyone’s best interest – particularly for those citizens concerned about their water – that Wyoming and the EPA reach an unbiased and scientifically supportable conclusion,” he said. Mead played a key role several years ago in pushing the EPA to withdraw from further investigation into Pavillion water issues.

One of the Stanford scientists says the state is not finding evidence of an impact from fracking in Pavillion because it’s not connecting the dots – not because the connections don’t exist. “I used the same publicly accessible data sets that they had access to, and I came up with a different conclusion,” he said.

The intertwined stories of Pavillion and fracking

Some see Pavillion, a quiet farming town among irrigated acres near Riverton, as the poster child for fracking as a cause for water contamination. Others see that argument as a farce, revealing nothing about and only besmirching the good name of fracking, which they say can and has been done in an environmentally safe and friendly manner, both in Wyoming and nationwide.

Homeowners in Pavillion, where each family has always relied on its private well, say that in the mid 2000s their water suddenly started smelling and tasting bad – like diesel, or like rotten eggs – and they blame the integrity of gas well construction and the hydraulic fracturing process.

Pavillion is a ranching community on a dead-end road that emerged from obscurity after reports of pollution in domestic water wells. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)
Pavillion is a ranching community on a dead-end road that emerged from obscurity after reports of pollution in domestic water wells. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Gas wells have been a feature on the Pavillion landscape since the 1960s, but activity increased in the last two decades. Starting in 1993, Tom Brown Inc., had drilled 77 wells in the Pavillion area. Gas production company Encana, whose years of big success in Wyoming in the early 2000s were made possible by fracking in several areas of the state, bought out Tom Brown in 2004. Encana drilled 36 more wells, between 2004 and 2006. The company has denied any widespread contamination in Pavillion.

Fracking has been around since the 1960s, but technological advances have led to an explosion over the last decade, though the last documented hydraulic fracturing treatment in Pavillion was in 2007. Nationally, between 2005 and 2013 natural gas production increased by 35 percent – largely due to fracking in shale and tight gas formations, according to the Energy Information Agency.

As fracking boomed, the complaints about their water by ranchers and residents around Pavillion gathered steam. Eventually little Pavillion was thrust into the center of a national debate, particularly after a 2011 draft report of an EPA investigation offered a tentative link between fracking and drinking water contamination. The oil and gas industry, and the Wyoming Governor’s office, bristled. The science in the report was questioned, and the EPA eventually backed away from their investigation, never finalizing the report and handing the investigation over to the state.

Meeks meanwhile – and at times neighbors John Fenton and the Locker family, who spearhead an advocacy group called Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens – received a lot of press. Meeks has been written about in national outlets including Bloomberg Businessweek, Reuters and ProPublica, and was featured in the Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland.

The Pavillion residents who complained have also had conflicts with neighbors, and in 2012 were accused of being motivated by “greed,” by the supervisor of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission. “I really believe greed is driving this… I think they’re just looking to be compensated,” Tom Doll was quoted as saying, speaking at a summit of state level regulators for the oil and gas industry. He resigned a week later, amidst criticism.

Louis Meeks at home in Pavillion with John Fenton. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)
Louis Meeks at home in Pavillion with John Fenton. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Since Wyoming took over, Pavillion has gone from a single investigation to a series of three. The Wyoming DEQ tested water quality of the wells, while the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission conducted two reports, one on the integrity of gas well construction and the other on surface pits, often unlined, where the precession of energy companies had disposed of the production water used in fracking.

Critics say that’s part of a deliberate strategy to obscure a problem. “This is a big industrial contamination site,” said Jill Morrison, an organizer with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, which has been working on the Pavillion case on behalf of Meeks and other local residents. “They’re not taking it on as if it was. They keep trying to downplay it, and parse it out into these little pieces and forget about it,” she added.

Final conclusions by the state

DEQ’s final report incorporated the findings from the two Oil and Gas Commission reports. There were few changes from the December 2015 draft, which concluded it was unlikely that hydraulic fracturing had led to contamination of Pavillion’s drinking water.

In March 2016, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which now acts solely as an observer in Pavillion, commented on DEQ’s draft report, saying among other things that it downplayed potential health risks from drinking the water in area wells.

In the final report however, the Wyoming DEQ again concluded that it had sufficiently laid out the potential risks, and that the only compounds present in water wells at worrying levels were either naturally occurring or could have come from a variety of possible sources and couldn’t be connected to oil and gas production.

The two Stanford scientists however had conclusions markedly different from the DEQ’s. One of the Stanford researchers, Dominic Digiulio, is an ex-EPA investigator who first came to Pavillion with that agency. He told WyoFile he retired from the EPA in part to free himself from the onus of political pressure and conduct transparent, peer-reviewed science. Diguilio and his co-author wrote the evidence showed contamination of groundwater, both close to the surface and in much deeper underground aquifers, and that the domestic wells themselves showed enough signs of contamination to demonstrate an “immediate need for further investigation.”

The home water supply wells drilled in Pavillion, by Meeks and other residents, draw on aquifers in the Wind River Formation, often from relatively deep formations – Meeks’s first well was over 200 feet, a second one he drilled reached 500 feet, and the DEQ report said the deepest water well studied reached 1,055 feet. The gas wells, drilled in the area since the 1960s, went deeper in the same formation, and the Fort Union formation beneath it. Over decades however, forms of hydraulic fracturing occurred at depths close to the deepest water wells. The Stanford scientists’ paper expressed alarm at the particularly shallow depths at which fracking occurred. The argument Pavillion residents are making is that contaminants from hydraulic fracturing have seeped into their wells – either vertically, by welling up from the areas where fracturing fluids were injected to shake out gas, or horizontally, by leaching out of pits on the surface where contaminated production fluids from the gas wells were kept.

This graph shows the approximate locations of domestic water wells and oil and natural gas wells in the Pavillion. (Source: State of Wyoming)
This graph shows the approximate locations of domestic water wells and oil and natural gas wells in the Pavillion. (Source: State of Wyoming)

However, the DEQ concluded they did not find any compounds in the well water that exceeded amounts considered to be safe for drinking water – or at least no compounds from hydraulic fracturing. The only things that exceeded water quality standards, the report concluded, were naturally occurring dissolved salts and other minerals.

The report concluded that it was unlikely that hydraulic fracturing had an impact on water wells, because it was unlikely that the fluids used in fracking had migrated up to the level of the water supply wells themselves.

As for the poor taste, color and smell reported by residents, the DEQ said it may be a natural problem for Pavillion’s water supply. “The presence of bacteria in many of the water-supply wells suggests that this may be a cause of taste and odor issues,” read a DEQ fact-sheet that accompanied the report’s publication.

What is groundwater?

Part of the distinction between the state’s conclusions, and those of Digiulio and his partner at Stanford, Robert Jackson, comes down to questioning what is considered drinking water and thus should be protected as such.

The aquifers of the Wind River Formation beneath Pavillion, and the underlying Fort Union Formation, meet the technical qualifications of being an underground source of drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act, a federal law. Those qualifications are based mainly around measuring dissolved solids in the water – used as a test ultimately of its usefulness for human consumption. If there are less than 10,000 milligrams per liter of dissolved solids in the water, it is considered usable.

The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed into law by Congress in 1974. As written, the act is designed to protect present and future sources of drinking water. It authorizes the EPA to set national, “health based standards for drinking water to protect against both naturally-occurring and man-made contaminants,” according to the EPA’s website. However there are loopholes, big enough to drive a well workover rig through, that open an aquifer like those in the Wind River Formation to millions of liters of hydraulic fracturing fluids.

In 1980, the act was amended to allow some aquifers to be declared as exempt. In particular, those exemptions could be received for aquifers that were mineral producing, and therefore useful to oil and gas development. Such exemptions can also be secured for the underground injection of mining waste. Over 90 percent of current exemptions, most of which are in the West, have been written for the oil and gas industry, according to the EPA’s website.

“It shouldn’t make sense but it’s the way the regulations work,” said Shannon Anderson, a lawyer and director of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

The state makes recommendations for aquifer exemptions, and the EPA rarely gets involved, Anderson said.

Tom Kropatch, Deputy Supervisor at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said that without exemptions the safe drinking water laws would effectively prohibit energy production. “You could say any underground aquifer or zone could someday be used,” he said. By the nature of the industry, the exemptions applied for are frequently for aquifers that naturally hold oil and gas in the water – suggesting those aquifers aren’t really drinking water quality by any ordinary definition, he noted. “If there’s oil in a groundwater zone are you really going to drink that?” Kropatch asked.

Significantly, exemptions are also only applicable to areas that are not already being accessed by drinking water wells. However, Anderson and her colleague Jill Morrison, who works with the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, said that the public often isn’t involved in the exemption process and that water wells accessing aquifers can be missed if an outcry isn’t made. In March, the Resource Council teamed up with other environmental groups, including the Natural Resource Defense Council, to file a rule change petition with the EPA, asking it to repeal or amend aquifer exemptions.

“The demand for clean water has dramatically increased, while supply is threatened due to climate change, drought, growing population, pollution, and inadequate regulations” a press release accompanying the petition read. “Modern technologies make it easier and cheaper to make salty water drinkable. Therefore, many groundwater supplies that were once thought unusable or unnecessary are now viable and vital.”

However, hydraulic fracturing is especially exempt from Safe Drinking Water Act provisions, through a brief section of a 2005 law called the Energy Policy Act. That law was influenced by recommendations of an energy task force convened by former President George W. Bush and led by former Vice President Dick Cheney. The Energy Policy Act specifically excluded fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Fracking, however, had rarely been regulated even before 2005. “It was just kind of putting into the law what was already in practice,” Kropatch said of the Energy Policy Act. He does not believe Encana or its predecessors would have needed an aquifer exemption for any of the work they did in Pavillion. It may have been difficult to get one if fracking had not been left largely untouched by regulators, however as the aquifer fracked has long been tapped by the water wells in the Pavillion area.

A gas tank valve in Pavillion. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)
A gas tank valve in Pavillion. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Last March, the Environmental Protection Agency took issue with DEQ’s labels for groundwater in the Pavillion area in its draft report. The DEQ stated that gas producing parts of the Wind River and Fort Union formations are unsuitable for drinking water  – in line with the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission thinking that Kropatch described. In comments on the draft, EPA wrote that that statement was not in line with the definitions of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

EPA’s authority in the matter under the Safe Drinking Water Act is limited because the Pavillion wells are private, not part of a public drinking water system. Unless EPA declares there is a clear, dangerous contamination event, its standards and protective measures don’t apply to private drinking water wells, according to former EPA staffer Mike Wireman, now a consultant to the Pavillion homeowners’ group. EPA didn’t reach the point of making that declaration, but withdrew from further investigation after Gov. Mead urged the state should take over the inquiry.

The Wyoming DEQ responded to the EPA’s March comments by saying it didn’t believe further discussion of groundwater classifications would influence the report’s conclusions. The draft report had sufficiently articulated how the state’s classifications related to the federal law, said Kevin Frederick, the administrator of water quality division of Wyoming DEQ, in an interview.

“That’s exactly how we spelled it out: these gas producing portions of an aquifer are not considered by us to be USDWs (underground sources of drinking water),” Frederick said.

Digiulio, the Stanford researcher, has written that both the Wind River Formation and the Fort Union Formation are underground sources of drinking water, based on both the measures of total dissolved solids and the fact that the EPA has granted aquifer exemptions in the Fort Union Formation, including one only four miles from the Pavillion gas field. The logic there is that if the EPA granted an exemption, then the Fort Union was obviously considered underground drinking water.

Though fracking is an unregulated process, Digiulio said it’s incongruous to claim that what is clearly a source of groundwater, present or future, has not been contaminated by the millions of gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid pumped into it.

But that’s not an argument that flies with the state.

“Why are we talking about underground sources of drinking water for a process that’s exempt from being regulated?” asked Frederick.

State detection limits are looser than the EPA’s

In other key areas, disparities between state and federal approaches similarly played a role in the difference between DEQ’s final report and the conclusions of the Stanford scientists.

In 2010, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency, was asked by the EPA to evaluate Pavillion area water wells for health risks. The agency concluded that at least one former drinking well, and the groundwater that supplied the drinking wells, was contaminated by petroleum hydrocarbons that exceeded federal standards. As a result, the agency’s report recommended that Pavillion residents do not drink from water wells without treatment, if at all. It also recommended that all private wells in the area should be sampled, and a monitoring program should be put in place until a long term solution could be found. While bathing or showering, the report said, windows and doors should be open for ventilation, and “sources of ignition” in any enclosed areas of houses should be avoided, given the risk of setting off an explosion from gas in the water supply.

The DEQ’s contractors for their report, Acton Mickelson Environmental, Inc., a California-based consulting service, conducted two rounds of sampling of Pavillion water wells in June and August of 2014.

EPA, and separately, Digiulio, noted that the state report used method and detection limits for some compounds that were higher than the EPA’s maximum contaminant levels. That means those compounds could have been present above the EPA’s limits, and wouldn’t have showed up given the analytical methods the state used.

Kevin Frederick, administrator of the water quality division of Wyoming DEQ, said they intend to refine their detection methods in further testing. He said there is an amount of uncertainty involved in water sampling.

“You’re going to go out to sample, and you don’t know what the chemical concentration in a particular well is going to be,” Frederick said. “So you go out there with your best idea of what the detection limits need to be, and oftentimes they’re just fine.” However, he said, there were some compounds they would like to resample for, and that recommendation was included in the report.

Missing baselines

Despite stories from Meeks and other residents of their wells going bad from one day to the next, it was difficult to establish that the Pavillion area water quality had changed. That’s because there are no records showing what the water contained before fracking started.

There was no baseline data for the water quality, from before drilling began, that would allow investigators to clearly point to contaminants entering the wells. For example, methane gas has shown up in water well samples, but without past data to compare to, whether methane was present in well water before oil and gas production in the Pavillion field began can be debated. And indeed, the DEQ report cited a 1951 report of a water well being abandoned due to the finding of natural gas, nine years before gas wells appeared on the landscape.

Sheep grazing near Pavillion. Area resident Louis Meeks told WyoFile his granddaughter grazes sheep on his property, and he gives them treated water delivered to his house by the state. (photo by Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)
Sheep grazing near Pavillion. Area resident Louis Meeks told WyoFile his granddaughter grazes sheep on his property, and he provides them treated water delivered to his house by the state. (photo by Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

This will change for future drilling projects in Wyoming. According to new rules that went into action in March of 2014, oil and gas well operators will be required to sample groundwater both before and after the drilling of a new well. They will also be required to sample domestic water sources within a half-mile radius.

“Pavillion is definitely an example of why that rule is necessary,” said Kimberly Mazza, public information officer with the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission, though she said it wasn’t the sole driving force behind the new rule. “It was part of the Governor’s energy strategy, and with activity and oil and gas operations throughout the state increasing it was a very much needed rule,” she said.

Peer-reviewed versus state-ordered science 

“We have, for the first time, demonstrated impact to USDWs (underground sources of drinking water) as a result of hydraulic fracturing,” Digiulio and Jackson’s journal article of March 2016 read. That conclusion contradicts much of the rationale behind fracking’s exemptions from groundwater regulation.

In June 2015, the EPA released a draft of a five year national investigation into the hazards of drinking water. Much like the DEQ’s Pavillion report, the EPA study was welcomed by the industry as having cleared fracking from being a risk to drinking water. However, a recently released story by National Public Radio outlet Marketplace wrote that the wording of the EPA’s key takeaways were altered at the eleventh hour by high ranking agency officials to downplay the risk of fracking to drinking water.

As regards Pavillion, the two Stanford researchers concluded that test results from water wells suggest they’ve been contaminated by chemicals leaking from the unlined pits where well operators dumped their production water. While their paper did not point to direct contamination, it recommended further investigation and the installation of more monitoring wells. They published their findings in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The journal is peer-reviewed, which means it was subjected to a review by other scientists acting anonymously and independently of one another.

“It’s different than a state report,” Digiulio said, “where the consultant writes a report and everybody is kind of on the same page.”

The DEQ has not yet responded to Digiulio and Jackson’s paper. Jeff Locker, a member of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, had submitted the paper to the DEQ asking for it to be considered as a part of their investigation.

In a phone interview, spokesman Keith Guille said that Digiulio’s journal article had been sent to them after the comments period had closed, and therefore the agency did not respond to it in the final report. The DEQ intends to respond directly to the article, but needed to focus on the comments that were received before the deadline, Guille said. However, he repeated that the agency’s report had already been finalized.

From the late March publication date to the November 10 publication of DEQ’s report, the state would have had eight months to include Digiulio and Jackson’s work.

“It’s the only peer-reviewed data type paper that’s come out on that site. So it’s surprising that they wouldn’t consider peer-reviewed science in their conclusions,” Digiulio said.

While he is hopeful they will respond to the journal article, he’s not hopeful that it will have any impact. Considering his paper after the DEQ’s final report is published means a response won’t change the state’s conclusions.

“The findings in that journal publication directly contradicts their conclusions, so I’m not sure what the point of that would be at this point,” he said.

Seven questions

Digiulio sees seven questions that need to be answered in any serious attempt to understand the connection between hydraulic fracturing and the contamination of drinking water resources in Pavillion.

They are presented here as simply as possible:

[wpex more=”CLICK HERE to expand this section“]

  1. Has hydraulic fracturing directly impacted groundwater?

The answer here is an unequivocal yes, Digiulio said. He and Jackson concluded that at least 11 million gallons of fracking fluid were injected into the Wind River and Fort Union formations, logically contaminating the groundwater resources contained there. The state disagrees here, because of the differences in classifying groundwater and the regulatory exemptions for fracking discussed above.

  1. Has contamination in groundwater reached the depths of the deepest water wells, which is 1,055 feet?

Digiulio’s paper used samples from two monitoring wells, drilled by the EPA to sample the aquifers at depths reaching 1,000 feet, to say that it has. He also said that it’s ridiculous to say contaminants would not be at those depths when oil and gas activity (in particular a process called acid stimulation, an early precursor to hydraulic fracturing) has occurred at essentially the same depths. However the DEQ, and Encana and researchers hired by oil and gas industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America say that the contamination seen comes from the monitoring wells themselves. In a response to comments on their paper, Digiulio and Jackson argued that the compounds found were much more representative of the mixtures used in fracking than of any side effect from the way EPA’s monitoring wells were constructed.

  1. Has hydraulic fracturing directly impacted domestic water wells?

Here is where things become trickier. Digiulio said the answer to this third question was “possibly.” There were two or maybe three domestic water wells he said could have been directly impacted by hydraulic fracturing. However, the data does not support a definitive conclusion. Additional testing, with better analytical tools, would be needed to get a better sense of whether water wells have been contaminated directly by hydraulic fracturing, he said.

The DEQ report concluded that the wells themselves were not contaminated, at least not by any byproduct of fracking. “Exceedances of water quality standards in most cases are for naturally occurring dissolved salts, metals, and radionuclides,” was the report’s exact language. This, however, is where the differences over method detection limits comes in. The state may not have found any evidence of contamination because its limits for detection were much higher.

  1. Has hydraulic fracturing indirectly impacted groundwater (not water wells themselves)?

Yes, and on this point the state and Digiulio would appear to agree, at least on the idea that production fluids from fracking, disposed into unlined pits, may have led to contaminants entering groundwater resources. Benzene, a known human carcinogen, was found at almost 400 times its maximum contaminant level in one shallow monitoring well.

For his part, DiGiulio said that there is no doubt whatsoever that the use of unlined pits for various drilling wastes has contaminated groundwater. Such pits are used for disposal of diesel-fuel-based drilling mud, flowback from hydraulic fracturing, and water pumped up from underground as the oil or gas is produced. Digiulio said that while the state and Encana might argue that this seepage is an indirect impact, that is a question of semantics, as the pits would not be there if the field was not being used for hydraulic fracturing.

  1. Has the disposal of production fluid into surface pits impacted domestic water wells themselves?

The DEQ’s report concluded that it had not. Digiulio and Jackson’s report concluded it is likely that it did, but that they would need more monitoring wells to answer the question definitively.

Mike Wireman, the former EPA hydro-geologist hired by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, commented on the DEQ’s draft report to say that the agency had tested too few water wells – 14 out of 97 – to draw conclusive evidence about whether or not wells had been contaminated. In its response to Wireman’s comments, the DEQ said that 14 wells was the number decided upon when the investigation was planned, with input from both Encana and the EPA. They again pointed out that in those 14 wells, no compounds indicative of an oil and gas impact was found at levels that exceeded the state’s standards.

  1. Have the gas wells used for fracking allowed natural gas to migrate upwards through the Wind River Formation?

The DEQ’s report concluded that this was possible. While constructing gas wells, the operators often did not cement all the way up the well until it reached the surface, leaving routes for gas migration. Even when operators do cement all the way up, sometimes the cement does not seal properly. Some gas wells have shown signs of slow gas seepage, the DEQ report stated. Which implies, Digiulio said, that the answer to this question is likely yes. However, the DEQ said that it would be difficult to determine how much gas moved via the wells and how much was the result of natural movement, leading to the final question.

  1. Has upwards gas migration reached the water wells, and was that migration natural, or because of the construction of gas wells?

As previously noted, there is no baseline data for the well water from before oil and gas development began in the Pavillion area. That makes it hard to tell on this last point. There is gas, particularly methane, in some of the water wells. That is agreed upon by all parties. Some of the gas wells are leaking methane, and that is also agreed upon by all parties. Stories told by Jeff Locker and Louis Meeks, who saw their water wells start smelling suddenly from one day to the next, would suggest the gas migration occurred after the gas wells were drilled. But that’s anecdotal evidence, and is not considered conclusive. Again, Digiulio called for more investigation on this point.

Digiulio and Jackson’s full report requires a journal subscription, but can be found here.


For Digiulio, the answers to these seven questions lead to the conclusion that there is no doubt groundwater in the Wind River and Fort Union formations were contaminated as a result of hydraulic fracturing, and that domestic wells too were impacted, surely by the surface pits, if not by the hydraulic fracturing fluids themselves. The state’s report did not find those same conclusions, though, again, both reports were based on the same sets of data.

Where to now?

On December 8, the DEQ is hosting an “open house” in Riverton to discuss its reports’ findings. Ahead of the meeting, the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens and the Powder River Basin Resource Council published an editorial in Wyoming newspapers deriding the investigation.

The editorial listed a series of steps the two groups believe the state must take in Pavillion. They included providing homeowners with a long-term supply of drinking water, installing additional monitoring wells and cleaning up and remediating old production pits.

In its report, the DEQ also left several recommendations for further investigation in the Pavillion area. One was for a closer look at the potential for seepage from the unlined pits into groundwater. Another was to try and achieve lower detection limits when testing water well samples. It’s a process that will require more sensitive lab detection, Kevin Fredericks said, and “that’s gonna cost a hell of a lot more money.”

However, the DEQ also recommended that the EPA plug and abandon the two monitoring wells it installed in 2010, which worried those who believe the state is trying to avoid finding contamination in Pavillion.

Digiulio notes that the state had originally planned on installing additional monitoring wells. That never happened, and instead investigators just went back and resampled the water wells. Not having monitoring wells means the DEQ only sampled residents’ water supplies at shallow depths, when the wells often reach down hundreds of feet.

Though new monitoring wells are mentioned in the DEQ’s recommendations section as a possibility for the future, none of the critics of the state investigation interviewed for this article believe that will happen. Instead, Jill Morrison said, the state is “stuck on wanting the EPA to plug two monitor wells.”

Guille with the DEQ, however, said it was a possibility. “I think there’s going to be some type of monitoring around those production areas,” he said, referring to monitoring wells to sample groundwater.

Digiulio believes that on the one hand there is very good reason to not plug the EPA wells, and on the other hand, the state provided no evidence why plugging them would be necessary.

The wells are the only current way to sample groundwater resources beneath the surface. They were last sampled in 2012. Water sampling is an evolving science, Digiulio said, and there are technologies today that weren’t available four years ago that could pick up contaminants in the water (perhaps like the costly ones referred to by Fredericks). At the very least, Digiulio recommends that water samples from the wells be archived for future testing as technology improves. Simply plugging and abandoning the monitoring wells is “tantamount to destroying evidence,” he said.

At the same time, he thought the DEQ’s report did not provide much evidence for why the EPA wells needed plugging, simply citing “concerns regarding well materials and installation practices,” without much elaboration. “If that’s the criteria that they want to apply then they need to start plugging and abandoning a lot of the gas wells out there,” Digiulio said.

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During a conference call with the press on the day of the report’s release, Kevin Frederick, administrator of the water quality division at DEQ, said the EPA’s wells had used pipe with a casing that contains petroleum hydrocarbons which could have leached into the water supply. Digiulio and his research partner examined the monitoring wells in the course of their study and disagreed with the charge of hazardous construction. Again, no clear answers.

Meanwhile, fracking continues to evolve, as natural gas replaces coal on the nation’s electric grid and exports to Canada and Mexico increase. The Energy Information Agency predicts that production could increase by another 45 percent by 2040, primarily along the Gulf Coast and in the Rocky Mountains and the Dakotas.

That most likely means more fracking into aquifers, which in the arid west, where wells are drilled deep, are seen by some as increasingly valuable sources of drinking water.

Morrison does not have much hope for the Powder River Basin Resource Council’s rule-change petition. “It’s dead. No way EPA is going to take that up under the Trump administration,” she said. During the campaign, now President-elect Trump called for rollbacks on environmental regulations, and has suggested the EPA should be dismantled or diminished.

Digiulio left the EPA, he said, to conduct more transparent science, away from the politics that he believes led the agency to back off its initial conclusions in Pavillion. He does not think questions of hydraulic fracturing’s legacy in groundwater will be clearly answered until investigations can be conducted without outside pressure interfering with results.

“This is one example of course, but the Pavillion investigation is symptomatic across the country of people trying to figure out what happened with their well water,” he said.

Meeks has been receiving his drinking water via a bottled delivery service paid for by Encana and the state. He gets 20 bottles a week in 5 gallon jugs, or at least he will until March 17th. Then the water service ends, and he’ll be left without options, he said. Drinking the water from his well, or even from Pavillion’s municipal water supply, is not what he considers an option.

“I’d like to supply them at their offices down there in Cheyenne with water from my well,” he said, referring to the DEQ.

Pavillion area resident Louis Meeks suspects his drinking water, and his neighbors', was contaminated by natural gas drilling and fracking activities. A new preliminary report by the state offers no conclusive answers. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)
Pavillion area resident Louis Meeks suspects his drinking water, and his neighbors’, was contaminated by natural gas drilling and fracking activities. A new preliminary report by the state offers no conclusive answers. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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  1. To claim the State report has anything at all to do with science is a falsehood. It is no more science than is Astrology.

    The State wrote a report specifically concluding what they wanted it to say, and then filled in the blanks to justify their claims.

    This type of anti-science is not unexpected in a state that seeks to censor science education.

  2. The two things about the circular debate over fracking that bother me the most are the so-called “Cheney Exemption,” and the lack of a list of ingredients used in the fracking process.

    Back in the early daze of the Bush-Cheney admin, Wyoming’s own Dick Cheney used his imperial clout to gin up the groundwater exemption for fracking. Remember, the job he had just before Vice President was CEO of Halliburton Inc, who pretty much was the world leader in the emerging wave of fracking tech. Exempting frackers from strict regulatory oversight on whatever is injected into the Earth’s crust is a two edged sword — it allows for expedient ( read: profitable) recovery of vast amounts of crude oil and natural gas, but it also masks the chemical nature and quantity of whatever the likes of Halliburton are injecting , not just the huge amount of water being used. And fracking uses and ungodly amount of water.

    Secondly , the chemicals and compounds used in fracking are a Witch’s Brew of everything from common sugar (!) to really nasty stuff whose names tie the tongue of even the most experienced petrochemist. What are frackers shooting into the ground besides water and sand ? — they seldom reveal their recipes, claiming it’s ” proprietary ” How convenient. They can hide the fact they are using an encyclopedia of carcinogens, caustics, and chemical voodoo. You can see a short list here: I’ve seen other lists that have over 700 ingredients.

    What compounds and camouflages the fracking debate is the combination of the two: each and every well drilled that is fracked can potentially use a different recipe – it’s own unique list of ingredients. No two wells are fracked alike. So the permutations of potential problems grows exponentially. What is done safely at wellsite # 1 may be pathologically awful over at at wellsite #2. How would we know ?

    So there you have it: the Frackers get special environmental exemptions to do their underground voodoo, and they don’t have to tell us what recipe they’re using. Is that any way to run a planet ?

    No. And nowhere is the public being more deceived or denied the essential truth about Fracking than right here in Gov. Matt Mead’s Wyoming. Our state feels compelled to protect the petroleum industry well before it looks after the interests of its own citizens. The Wyoming DEQ does everything it can to be a blunt instrument and compliant enforcer for Big Oil, Fat Gas, and the rest of the Hydrocarbon Hegemony, so long as the state treasury gets adequate compensation. The small silver lining is we can thank the antediluvian gods of geology that they laid down the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and not Wyoming 350 million years ago .

    Pavillion is just a sacrificial goat, to my mind.

  3. Wow. Once again, government supporting corporations and fossil fuel$$$ over people and environment. I expected this cover up but am ashamed of my home state.