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)

A Stanford University study of Pavillion area groundwater and oil and gas activity has documented, for the first time, a link between fracking and underground drinking water contamination.

John Fenton, a Pavillion area resident, said the new study underscores Wyoming government’s blatant, decades long lack of oversight of the oil and gas industry.

“There’s no oversight there at all as far as cement and casing and the ways [wellbore completion is] done,” Fenton said. “It’s all self-reporting.”

Stanford University scientists and lead authors Dominic C. DiGiulio and Robert B. Jackson examined all publicly available data on the Pavillion natural gas field where residents have complained about contaminated well water for more than 15 years. Toxicologists warned dozens of households in the area to avoid consuming well water and to use ventilation while showering. That recommendation was based in part on high sodium levels, which are naturally occurring.

RELATED: Tons of toxic soil, but no link in latest Pavillion report

In an interview with WyoFile, DiGiulio said the focus of the study is groundwater resources and how decades of oil and gas activities might contribute to pollutants found in aquifers.

“We documented for the first time impacts to underground sources of drinking water,” DiGiulio said. “We’re stopping short of saying that there’s strong evidence tying hydraulic fracturing impacts to the domestic wells themselves. I think that would take further investigation, and some additional monitoring wells. What we are saying is that hydraulic fracturing impacted water resources, in terms of water that can be used at some time in the future out there.”

DiGiulio, who formerly worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was also lead author of a 2011 EPA report declaring a link between hydraulic fracturing chemicals and contaminated drinking water in the Pavillion field. After fierce pushback by Gov. Matt Mead’s administration and the fracking industry, EPA sidelined the report without submitting it to its scientific review panel. Eventually the federal agency turned its investigation over to the state of Wyoming.

DiGiulio said that while the state’s investigation centers on potential links between oil and gas wells, polluted surface pits, and contaminants found in domestic wells, the Stanford University study more broadly examines groundwater resources.

READ THE STUDY: “Impact to Underground Sources of Drinking Water and Domestic Wells from Production Well Stimulation and Completion Practices in the Pavillion, Wyoming, Field”

“So we looked at a number of lines of evidence, from the well stimulation processes [fracking] themselves to major ion analysis associated with produced water,” a byproduct of drilling and producing natural gas, DiGiulio said. “There were monitoring wells drilled by EPA back in 2010, so those monitoring wells corroborate the finding of impact of water resources, plus they indicate a couple of migrations of contaminants associated with hydraulic fracturing to the depths of current groundwater use.”

The operator of the Pavillion field, Encana Oil & Gas Inc., tried and failed to sell the field after the 2011 EPA report. A company  spokesman said the Stanford University study doesn’t link fracking to contaminants found in domestic wells.

“After numerous rounds of testing by both the State of Wyoming and EPA, there is no evidence that the water quality in domestic wells in the Pavillion Field has changed as a result of oil and gas operations; no oil and gas constituents were found to exceed drinking water standards in any samples taken,” Encana media relations manager Doug Hock told WyoFile via email.

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)

Wyoming’s investigation focuses on homeowners’ water wells, existing oil and gas well data, and an examination of unlined surface pits known to have been polluted decades before Encana acquired the field. A draft report of the state’s ongoing investigation was issued in December and made available for public comment.

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The state has provided cisterns to families in the Pavillion area, and Encana has also aided in providing some alternative drinking water sources. The Mead administration refers to the state’s investigation as a “palatability study” — a term that state officials say is based on initial concerns raised about the odor and taste of the water, but that Pavillion area families find insulting.

“You go to Jeff and Rhonda’s [Locker] house or Lewis Meeks’ house, it’s damn sure not just palatability,” Fenton said. “That stuff will peel the paint off your car. We’re talking about people’s health here, and the possibility that people are being poisoned by industrial chemicals. … Our water is not necessarily what you would call unpalatable, but there are chemicals in there that they can’t even tell us what they are. That’s what this is about. It’s about safety and about holding this industry responsible for its externalized costs.

Wyoming DEQ spokesman Keith Guille said that while it’s referred to as a palatability study, the scope does include the health and safety of the water.

“They produce oil and gas for a profit for their shareholders, and in turn we have to absorb all the shit they puke out,” Fenton continued. “They are trying to make this about palatability because then it just makes it seem like we are just a bunch of whiners out here complaining because our water tastes bad.”

RELATED: EPA Pavillion report stokes fire over fracking

In 2012, Gov. Mead’s top oil and gas supervisor, Tom Doll, told an industry group in Vancouver, Canada, that residents in the Pavillion field were motivated by “greed.” Doll was asked to step down several days later. Tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation have also said the state seems disinterested in their concerns over polluted water in Pavillion.

“It’s so disheartening,” said Fenton, “because it would be different if Pavillion was the only place in the country or in the world that this was happening, but it’s not. We are just one of many.

“They use these same tactics everywhere. They try to make the people look like that we are greedy. For one thing, if you want to get rich, this is the last goddamn thing you want to do to get rich because it does the exact opposite to you. It impacts the time you have with your family, it impacts how you view your own personal space that you have and whether you are even safe in that, and if you are safe [whether] to let your kids or grandkids play outside.

“This really gets to the heart of why the industry has to be held accountable for their practices and why state governments and governors and state lawmakers have to be held accountable for not accurately and not faithfully representing the people that they are in charge of,” Fenton said.

DiGiulio said the study aims to answer a central question about the widespread practice of hydraulic fracturing nationwide:  “If we continue to inject millions of gallons of stimulation fluids into [gas sources] when it’s co-located with water resources would you expect impact to those water resources? And I think the answer to that is yes.”

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. EPA find the high level of pollution. Anti-Government, anti-science, anti-Wyomingnites Governor Mead blocks the EPA, and he sets up his own, deliberately not peer-reviewed “study.” The “study” is paid by the King Mineral industry just to be sure of the outcome, and it delivers as expected.

    Reality is, that nobody should be surprised over this. We got exactly the study and result that the Governor and his mineral industry handlers ordered. As usual, it’s purpose is to throw Wyomingnites under the bus, to make sure King Mineral is happy.

    If anybody are surprised over this, or didn’t see it happen, then there is something wrong with their thinking.