Water Polluted From Fracking Divides Wyoming After EPA’s Finding

Water Polluted From Fracking Divides Wyoming After EPA’s Finding by Mark Drajem, Edited by Jon Morgan and David Ellis, August 24, 2012, Bloomberg
Louis Meeks held a mason jar under his laundry-room faucet, filling it with the cloudy liquid that flows from his backyard well. It smelled like diesel fumes. “Would you want to drink it?” Meeks, a 62-year-old with a walrus mustache and suspenders, said in an interview in his farmhouse near the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. It’s a demonstration Meeks has given neighbors, film crews, federal officials, and even Wyoming’s Governor Matt Mead. Meeks blames Encana Corp., which owns 169 natural gas wells under his and neighboring lands, for contaminating the water. The company denies this, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency backs him up. It said in a draft report last December that this area is the nation’s one established incident of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that has surged across the country. Far from thanking him for raising the alarm, many of Meeks’ neighbors blame him for driving away prospective home buyers, mortgage lenders and even restaurant customers. “This has turned friend against friend,” said Linda Strock, the bartender at Possum Petes in Pavillion, where she hands fifths of Crown Royal whisky to customers at a drive-up window. “It just makes me sad.” As soon as an EPA report on Pavillion was issued, demand for specialties such as shrimp and sweet-potato fries at the local restaurant, Miss Ginny’s Roost, collapsed. “It was instantaneous, like the spigot was turned off,” Ginny Warren, the owner of the restaurant, said. “Now I’m stuck with a property that I couldn’t give away if I wanted to.”

Industry officials say the process is safe and that they keep gas and chemicals from escaping the wells and safely dispose of the water that flows back up. Environmental advocates say the example of Pavillion belies such assurances.      “We need to make sure that the rest of the country learns from what we’re dealing with here,” said Wes Martel, co-chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, which represents the interests of a local Native American tribe. “We got lulled to sleep because industry said these chemicals would never reach the groundwater.”

Encana, a Calgary-based company and Canada’s biggest natural gas producer, and state officials say the water in Meeks’ well doesn’t have contaminants in excess of federal safety standards and shows no sign of an impact from gas drilling. The company provides water to about 20 area households, including Meeks, even though it denies contaminating any wells. “The domestic wells show no impact from oil and gas” production, Doug Hock, a spokesman for Encana, said in an interview. Of the sulfates and methane federal officials found in the water, he said: “We didn’t put it there, nature did.” And some of Meeks’ closest neighbors say their water is fine, and that the persistent complaints from Meeks are just a bid by him to force Encana to buy him out, as it did with another resident.

Meeks, who says he has been ostracized, isn’t coy about what he expects from Encana now: “I want to be compensated for what they did to me. I’m not greedy, but anybody in their right mind would want to” be bought out, he said. Of his neighbors’ complaints, he is equally blunt: “I didn’t ruin their land values. Encana did.”

Two events from the mid-2000s are still reverberating through Pavillion, and the debate among residents about what’s going on with their water. Bill Garland, who owned property adjacent to Meeks’, said his cattle were becoming ill and died after drinking water on his property. He also didn’t want the gas-company employees coming on his land. He ended up in court, fending off Tom Brown’s drilling. After Encana acquired Tom Brown, it settled with Garland and bought out his property, ending the dispute over his water and gaining access to the land for a pipeline. Both Hock and Garland declined to discuss the terms of the settlement. “That set a bad precedent for everybody else,” Dolbow, the farmer who supports Encana, said in an interview. Encana later said that there is contamination on the Garland property from old mining disposal pits. When an Encana affiliate sold the property in 2010, it included an access agreement so that Encana could do “environmental remediation.” A map was attached showing the “groundwater impact area,” and a 9-acre buffer within which Encana “recommended for no irrigation.” It also added a clause to the deed in bold, capital letters specifically exempting Encana from any future environmental or drinking-water claims. “Such disclaimers are common in real estate transactions,” Hock said. “The buyer is expected to do their own due diligence prior to purchase.”

Meeks began complaining about problems with his water around the same time, and got Encana to test his well twice, in September 2004 and April 2005. In each of those tests, the company determined that his water had “typical water quality conditions for the area.” Meeks, who said his water was pristine before fracking started, wasn’t convinced by those assurances. He still saw the persistent oily sheen and cloudy components in his water. It smelled of gas as well and sometimes ran yellow or brown, Meeks said. He had stopped raising sheep, as the lambs kept dying. He decided he needed a new source of water, and contracted with Louis Dickinson, who has been drilling water wells in the area since 1978, to make a new well. On December 19, 2005, Dickinson drilled down 540 feet, and then began pumping off the water. As he pumped, the well “blew off” and methane gas and muddy water started shooting up and out the hole, Dickinson said in an interview. The well kept shooting gas that entire day. With no end in sight, Meeks made an emergency appeal to a local judge, who forced Encana to cap the well. For the three days it blew, 3 million cubic feet of gas escaped, according to Meeks. Both Dickinson and Meeks say they are convinced that the blowout was caused by the gas drilling nearby, and Dickinson has stopped drilling deep water wells near the gas field. The blowout shouldn’t be a surprise, according to Encana. “He hit a gas pocket in the Pavillion gas field,” Hock said. “That’s not uncommon.”

The EPA agreed to take another round of water samples, after Encana and Wyoming officials criticized the testing methods that resulted in last December’s draft report, and those conclusions are set to be delivered in September. With the tests outstanding, the state has stepped in to offer cisterns for residents who feel their water is unsafe. Martin signed up for one; Meeks did not. Other residents haven’t been offered such assistance. Ginny Warren’s family is holding onto two ranches, unable to sell the second one because no buyer can get a mortgage, even though the property is nowhere near the gas field and their water is unaffected. Martin is on his third attempt to get an independent appraiser to sign off on his refinancing application. He put plans to sell the farm and retire on hold. Meeks uses the bottled water Encana delivers for his drinking water for everything from showers for his granddaughter to drinking water for his chickens. If he uses his well water, the chickens “will die,” he said. While he seethes about the treatment from some of his closest neighbors, Meeks is counting on the federal government to come to his aid. [Emphasis added]

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