WyoFile Energy Report

Pavillion collaboration resumes despite fractures

The Pavillion Working Group met this week for the first time since November 2011, delayed by the controversy that erupted over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s draft report in December suggesting a link between groundwater pollution in the rural Pavillion area and hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking.”

The controversy has proven more poisonous than the polluted water, reaching the boiling point in June when Wyoming’s oil and gas supervisor Tom Doll was forced to resign after publicly stating that Pavillion area citizens are merely looking for a payoffand that EPA had pre-determined it would blame fracking for the groundwater contamination.

Dustin Bleizeffer

So in addition to examining well-bore integrity and historic drilling pits in the Pavillion natural gas field, it would appear that the Pavillion Working Group must also now attempt to mend fences. During the five hours of work, however, it was clear that a scientific examination of drilling pits and well-bores may be a task more preferable and less complicated.

“They f***ing lied!” a Wyoming geologist told me after the meeting, referring to the type of materials used in constructing a pair of EPA water monitoring wells for the investigation. (More on this later.)

Pavillion area residents remain frustrated as well — at the pace of the investigation and at the industry’s continued insistence that the EPA’s work is shoddy and performed with ill-intent. On the other hand, Gov. Matt Mead’s office says it has reached out to individuals in the Pavillion area to offer reassurances that Doll’s comments in Vancouver did not reflect the feelings of the governor and his administration. Based on conversations with several Pavillion area residents who attended Tuesday’s meeting, the response to that outreach is tentative. After all,  an Associated Press story published this past spring featured emails from several Wyoming officials clearly indicating an interest in downplaying the credibility of the EPA draft report and noting that a link between fracking and polluted water in Pavillion could garner more opposition toward fracking at the national level.

Screenshot of “Hydraulic Fracturing In Wyoming; HF 101 March 2012” presentation by former Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor Tom Doll.

The fact is, there’s little daylight between industry and state officials in their criticism of EPA and its ongoing Pavillion groundwater investigation — a major source of aggravation for residents since they bypassed state officials to convince EPA to investigate in the first place.

Representatives of EnCana Oil & Gas USA — the operator of the Pavillion natural gas field — said on Tuesday that they want the Pavillion Working Group to create a “potential sources” subcommittee to examine whether garbage dumps, septic systems and other sources might contribute to groundwater pollution. EnCana feels the investigation is too narrowly focused on drilling. Why just examine the oil and gas industry?

Twice during the Tuesday session, EnCana representatives accused EPA of not using the best science available. They also objected to EPA’s insistence to perform its own “full sweep” risk analysis, sampling a small number of pits in the field, which sparked a discussion about the complicated overlap of jurisdictions among state, federal and tribal authorities. EnCana noted that clean-up of the pits has already been deemed satisfactory — or at least satisfactorily in progress — by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (OGCC), borrowing remediation parameters set by the EPA itself.

“So there’s already EPA standards, so I’d propose that this additional risk analysis is redundant,” said David Steward, head of EnCana’s environment, health and safety division for the Northern Rockies.

Screenshot from June 4 presentation to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission by former Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor Tom Doll.

The notion is that the work of Wyoming’s DEQ and OGCC agencies is superior to EPA — a federal agency lacking familiarity with Wyoming turf and prone to national political influence. On the matter of EPA conducting its own analysis of the pits, however, Wyoming DEQ officials sided with EPA on Tuesday, noting that there are many qualified methods of analysis, and that no uniform methodology binds all the various authorities and stakeholders, nor is it necessary. During a break,  DEQ administrator John Corra said he believes the working group should avoid battles of jurisdiction since the goal is to come to a general technical consensus regarding potential sources.

EPA’s staff suggested they’re leaning toward eliminating the drilling pits as a potential source. But, one EPA staff member said, the agency simply wants to run its own analysis before signing off.

That suspicions remain, and cooperation is tentative, is not a surprise. After all, at the origin of every “task force” and “working group” is a desperate admission that things have gotten seriously fouled up. Still, Pavillion Working Group stakeholders seemed genuinely committed to seeing their shared task through, like ending a bad marriage. The attorneys are circling. Most interesting of all, the working group’s Tuesday meeting was a preview of what we can expect this fall as the U.S. Geological Survey makes public its water sampling results, and the EPA convenes its independent peer review panel.

But first, a quick review of the Pavillion Working Group and how it relates to the EPA’s ongoing investigation.

The working group was formed in 2010, a year or so after Pavillion area residents convinced EPA Region 8 to conduct an investigation. The purpose of the working group was to include all stakeholders, to share data, and examine potential sources of groundwater contamination. EPA had already initiated its own parallel investigation under the Superfund program. That investigation continues under EPA’s, and the Interior’s, own parameters, while the working group is a good-faith exchange of information to get buy-in from all stakeholders, including the public at-large.

Now that the working group has had its first meeting in eight months to resume its examination of pits and wellbores, everybody’s attention will quickly return to EPA’s groundwater investigation and the pending review of its controversial draft report, “Investigation of Ground Water Contamination near Pavillion, Wyoming,” (public comment is open through October). That peer review was originally supposed to take place in April, but at the insistence of industry and the governor’ office, EPA agreed to postpone it until more water samples were collected.

The additional sampling took place this spring. This time an additional party, the U.S. Geological Survey, also took water samples from both of EPA’s two monitoring wells in the Pavillion field. One criticism of the prior round of testing was that the flow from monitoring well No. 2 was low. An attempt this spring to increase the flow didn’t result in the desired higher flow, therefore the USGS will not be submitting sampling results from that well, according to the agency. USGS will not be interpreting results of its own water sampling, leaving that task to EPA Region 8 and, ultimately, the independent peer review panel slated to convene sometime in November.

EnCana’s David Steward said it’s a shame that USGS won’t be interpreting its own water sampling results.

“I’m dissapointed USGS is not intertpretting the data, and I think it would be beneficial to everyone here if that work be done with somebody familiar with that geology and hydraulic setting,” said Steward.

EPA also took samples from both monitoring wells No. 1 and No. 2., and sampled several private water wells this spring. EPA staff said samples were sent to five different laboratories. “We are confident in the integrity of the monitoring wells and sampling of the wells,” Ayn Schmit of EPA Region 8 told WyoFile.

Getting back to the Wyoming geologist’s comment about construction of EPA’s monitoring wells. EnCana, and others in the oil and gas industry, have focused much attention on how the wells were constructed and what materials were used. EnCana has submitted to EPA as evidence an independent review it commissioned from Stimulation Petrophysics Consulting, LLC, in which the consultant concludes;

“As explained below in further detail, this review concludes that EPA’s monitoring wells MW01 and MW02 were not properly designed, drilled and completed. As a result, cement has come in contact with the water-bearing sands being tested and both wells are contaminated. Neither of these wells, in their current condition, is a reliable water quality monitoring well.”

Screenshot from June 4 presentation to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission by former Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor Tom Doll.

Additionally, state officials sent a camera downhole in monitoring well No. 2 and recorded a video that critics say reveals weaknesses in the well’s integrity.

“These are questions that have been out there for some time. It just demonstrates there are some problems with construction of these monitoring wells,” Doug Hock of EnCana told WyoFile.

Asked to comment on concerns regarding the monitoring wells, EPA Region 8 spokesman Richard Mylott sent this response;

“EPA’s monitoring wells were constructed using casing consisting of threaded pipes of carbon steel alloy which were fitted to the stainless steel screens at the base of the wells. Carbon steel alloy is commonly used as pipe or well casing in deep wells where material strength is required to withstand pressure. This material is identified for well casing in the section of EPA’s Quality Assurance Project Plan that addresses well installation and sampling. EPA is confident sample results for organic compounds and dissolved solids were not impacted by the materials used for the screens or well casing.”

— 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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