Fracking lessons, What Boulder County and the rest of gasland can learn from Pavillion’s decade-long fight

Fracking lessons, What Boulder County and the rest of gasland can learn from Pavillion’s decade-long fight by Joel Dyer, May 31, 2012, Boulder Weekly
Saying fight to the “death” is not an exaggeration with Louis Meeks. His health stinks and he’s already had heart and respiratory problems that have nearly killed him. He says his health issues stem from the stress of fighting Encana and the state of Wyoming as well as from drinking and showering in contaminated water. Donna looks at me and without showing a stitch of emotion says she knows that the fight is going to kill her husband in the near future. She’s become fatalistic about the whole contamination situation, and she’s given up trying to get Louis to just quit and move away. “He won’t listen, that’s who he is,” she says. “He’ll die before he gives in to them. Then I guess I’ll just leave it and move on.” Donna has lost all of her ability to smell and taste, a health issue she attributes to the gas field, which she says has ruined the air as well as the water. Louis hobbles over to a sink and pours me a glass jar full of water from his tap, shakes it and then offers me a drink. I recoil when the jar gets close to my nose. The water smells like kerosene, and only a fool would proceed further to find out if the flavor matched the stench. It did. … Encana claimed that it was not at fault and that fracking could not have caused gas to migrate into the water wells. Under the terms of a settlement following the blowout, the company did agree to provide the couple with trucked-in water at a cost to the company of about $3,000 a month. It was a small conciliation.

In September 2009, Encana called Louis to a meeting in Riverton at their Wyoming offices. He thought and even hoped to a small degree that the company had called him in to make an offer to buy his property, even though he says he would never have been willing to accept any offer that would have gagged his ability to tell his story about what had been done to him, but he needn’t have worried about that. Encana simply wanted to inform him that it would no longer be paying for his water to be trucked in. “It was a low point,” says Louis. … “The state was on the side of the gas money,” says Louis. “They’d just lie to your face, just like the company.”

Eleven of 39 water wells initially tested by the EPA in 2008 showed serious contamination, including some toxins associated with fracking. The testing by the feds found compounds linked to diesel fuel, arsenic and methane gas, along with heavy metals. The testing also found adamantanes and butoxyethanol phosphate. Louis and Donna Meeks’ well also contained elevated readings of benzene, bisphenol and toluene. The Fenton and Locker wells were also found to be seriously contaminated.

All of this EPA testing was done without the benefit of knowing what they were looking for. That’s because the actual chemicals being used by Encana in its fracking process are considered a trade secret and, thanks to former vice President Dick Cheney pushing through the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which included a provision that prohibits the EPA from using the 1974 Clean Water Act to regulate fracking, they will likely stay a secret, no matter how many people get sick.

Thanks to the efforts of a few stubborn ranchers, the Muddy Ridge gas field, located five to eight miles east of Pavillion’s center of town, is now the only place in the nation where any government agency has done the research and then concluded that fracking gas wells contaminated drinking water supplies. If he were dead, Dick Cheney would be rolling over in his grave.

The finding by the EPA in 2011 that fracking contaminated drinking water makes Pavillion unique. So does the way that the agency’s intervention came about. The EPA looked into Pavillion’s water problem because of the persistence of a few ranch families who refused to be silenced by the industry and state even after Encana and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) had both declared that the water in their wells was safe to drink. Every situation is different, and just because the EPA came to the rescue in Pavillion doesn’t mean it will return calls to people who find themselves in similar circumstances in Colorado and elsewhere. The EPA was already engaged in trying to figure out how an aquifer became heavily contaminated with benzene on Bureau of Land Management property only 180 miles from Pavillion. The Muddy Ridge complaints came along at just the right time to expand the agency’s research. What I can glean from Pavillion, however, is that a small group of people can make a difference if they organize and remain committed no matter how long the fight, which in most cases involving the oil and gas industry takes years, not months. That’s because fighting fracking regulations is the number one priority of the industry. According to a recent study conducted by BDO USA LLP that examined the annual reports of the largest 100 oil and gas companies, government regulation is seen as the biggest risk to the entire industry.

Another thing that made it possible for the ranchers to fight Encana on the fracking front in Pavillion is the area’s geology. The Muddy Ridge gas field that created the conditions for fracking to contaminate groundwater is considerably different than gas fields we find around Boulder. The wells here are quite a bit deeper — total depth drilled tends to be 6,000 to 8,000 feet, compared to wells around Pavillion, which produce gas from zones as shallow as 1,500 to 3,500 feet below the surface. That means that the separation between groundwater and gas producing formations here is much wider than in Pavillion and, therefore, it’s considered less likely that fracking fluids pumped into a gas-bearing formation will be able to migrate upwards several thousand feet to contaminate groundwater. This certainly doesn’t mean it is impossible. Research has found that fracked gas has migrated as far as some 7,000 feet from its source. So in theory, it should be possible for fracking fluid to do the same. But it is far less likely that this will occur here than in the Pavillion area — and much more difficult to prove even if it were to happen.

By comparison, the EPA’s draft report on Pavillion dated Dec. 8, 2011, states that “fluids used for hydraulic fracturing were injected directly into the Wind River Formation.” That’s a big deal because this is one of the shallower formations, and it produces well water in the area. This is the kind of disaster that can happen when gas- and water-producing zones are found in such close proximity to one another, and it is a problem that can also be proven more easily than fracking issues at greater depths.

In addition, the EPA found problems with cement and casing at Muddy Ridge. Out of 169 wells examined, all but two failed to have casing that extended 150 feet below the maximum depth of area water wells, as required by Wyoming law. It was a shocking example of callously ignoring industry standards and practices.

Another lesson learned from Pavillion is that state governments are cash-strapped and need revenues from the oil and gas industry to pay for things like schools and prisons. As a result, they can be counted on to support the interests of the oil and gas companies, not the citizens breathing in the fumes from the wells in their front yards. For example, in December 2011, the EPA finally published its controversial Pavillion draft report declaring that fracking had caused drinking water contamination. Then all hell broke loose. According to phone records gathered by the Associated Press, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead called EPA Director Lisa Jackson the very next day and requested a one-month delay in releasing the report. He followed up the call in person two days later in Washington, D.C. He ultimately persuaded Jackson to wait. … Mead, his oil and gas industry cronies and his fellow elected officials around the country who were beholden to the oil lobby for campaign funds and state tax revenues used Jackson’s 30-day delay to launch a massive PR campaign to discredit the EPA’s Pavillion findings before they even came to light. Terms like “junk science” were applied to the report before it was available for peer review. And nearly every research firm and university funded by the oil industry pumped out a white paper saying fracking was not the cause of Pavillion’s contamination, but rather it was the same old culprits of bad oil field practices, including casing and open pit problems.

As a result of the pressure, the EPA agreed to go back to Pavillion and conduct additional testing, particularly in the two deep monitoring wells the agency drilled before finally releasing its report for peer review later in the fall. I hate to be a pessimist, but I have seen this type of “retesting” under political pressure before. Don’t be surprised if come fall the EPA — which is essentially run by political appointees, not the agency’s scientists — announces that it has reversed its findings on fracking in Pavillion. It is amazing what can be put up for trade in exchange for campaign funds and battleground state endorsements in an election year. Unfortunately for the people who live there, Pavillion is a pretty good bargaining chip right now for a president that the industry doesn’t like.

Colorado’s attorney general has recently made it clear that the state will sue any local government that tries to create any oil and gas regulations other than those written and enforced by the state. Not only is state government not working to protect its citizens, it is actually threatening them on behalf of the oil and gas industry. And the intimidation is working. Longmont was ready to pass its new set of drilling ordinances on May 22, and then the last-minute threat of a suit from the state caused four votes to flip. The best the council could then accomplish on the drilling front was to kick the town’s ordinance vote down the road a couple of months and then try again to pass it. But nothing will have changed. The state will still be bullying the city with its threat of a suit.

The people living in Pavillion and on top of the Muddy Ridge gas field never had the opportunity to create ordinances that might have protected their water, air, home values and health. The damage was already done before anyone there had ever heard of the word fracking. Knowing what they know now, would the threat of a lawsuit by the state of Wyoming — the same state that knowingly allowed them to be poisoned and is still fighting against them with all of its political power and wealth — have kept area residents from at least trying to pass regulations on drilling that could have protected their health and property values? I doubt it. Such a threat by the state seems trivial in comparison to the very real dangers that gas drilling and fracking brought with it. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to: Diesel in Water Near Fracking Confirms EPA Tests Wyoming Disputes and Fracking Aquifers ]

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