Former Wyoming regulator recants: Encana polluted the drinking water at Pavillion! Wyoming to spend another $400,000 for Pavillion to provide safe alternate water after refusing to for years, the money is from Encana’s $1.5 Million donation

Impacted Landowners shocked by Wyoming Regulatory Conclusions on Pavillion Area Groundwater Investigation Press Release by Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens and Powder River Basin Resource Council, February 14, 2014 

Pavillion, Wyoming—Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens (PACC) are shocked and disappointed by a Wyoming regulator’s conclusions that groundwater contamination in the Pavillion, WY area is not from oil and gas development.

In December of 2011, the EPA released a draft report on their four year investigation of groundwater contamination in the Pavillion area.  The investigation was turned over to Wyoming last summer for completion.  In a Casper Star Tribune article released on February 13th, Robert Johnson, a former Wyoming official, backed away from his October statement in which he said the Pavillion contamination was from oil and gas development.  In the article Johnson said a recent conversation with Grant Black, Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Supervisor, convinced him he was “dead incorrect” to attribute pollution to industry. “He set me straight and told me I was wrong,” Johnson said.

Chair of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens and Powder River Basin Resource Council Board Member, John Fenton says, “This is unbelievable and unacceptable!  It appears that the State has already reached conclusions about the investigation of Pavillion area groundwater contamination before they’ve released findings or even hired experts to review their analysis.  Governor Mead and the State regulators made a huge issue of how inadequate the EPA investigation was, but at least the EPA used sound science to establish their draft conclusions. How did Supervisor Black reach his conclusion?”

In December 2011 the EPA released the draft report of its scientific investigation into the connection between oil and gas development and contamination of drinking water wells. After initial testing in August 2010, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) urged residents not to drink their water or use it for cooking. EPA’s draft findings show that hazardous chemicals, commonly used in oil and gas development, contaminated groundwater and drinking water wells in the Pavillion area.

EnCana Oil & Gas USA, which owns and operates over 200 gas wells in the Pavillion area denies that drilling is to blame for the contamination stating that many [but not all] of the toxins “occur naturally.” On January 6, 2012, EnCana sent a letter demanding that the EPA suspend the public comment period on the report claiming that the agency didn’t give the company copies of all the data it used to compile the report. The Petroleum Association of Wyoming and Wyoming Water Development Commission accused the EPA of not following its own water-testing protocols by holding several water well samples two days too long before conducting tests.

“The EPA conducted a scientifically sound investigation of the contamination in the Pavillion area,” said Wilma Subra, chemist, president of Subra Company, and board member of the State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER). “Problems with hold times are very common and this did not compromise the results. If anything, longer hold times make the results less likely to indicate contamination,” Subra stated.

Toxic chemicals were found in nearly 9 out of every 10 wells sampled. In monitor wells drilled by EPA, benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, was found at 50 times the limit safe for human health along with numerous other toxic chemicals including 2-BE, a chemical used in fracking operations.

“Pavillion residents made continual requests for help from the state of Wyoming and industry before seeking assistance from EPA to address the contamination issues. For over 10 years the state refused to help us. Now that the state is back in control, they are right back in step with industry denying there are any problems from oil and gas,” said Jeff Locker, Pavillion Ag Producer, and Treasurer of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens.

“It appears that Supervisor Black has reached a conclusion on the Pavillion area investigation before the State has conducted a thorough investigation.  His actions, and further refusal to talk to the press, raise the question of the State’s ability to implement the investigation in a balanced and scientific manner.” said Deb Thomas, organizer for Powder River Basin Resource Council. “The State has played politics with the investigation for seven years. With the investigation now under their jurisdiction, it seems that they have pre-judged what the results will be and are trying to suppress public discussion”.

Former Wyoming regulator recants Pavillion water pollution comments by Benjamin Storrow, February 13, 2014, Star-Tribune

Audio: Retracted comments about Pavillion groundwater contamination

A former Wyoming regulator says he was mistaken to claim Pavillion’s groundwater was polluted by the oil and gas industry. Yet that reversal seemed unlikely to prevent a fresh round of controversy over the source of groundwater pollution in Pavillion. State officials noted the regulator, Robert Johnson, had limited involvement in the state and federal investigations into groundwater contamination in the region. Environmentalists hailed his comments as evidence of a link between energy production and water pollution before distancing themselves from the remarks. Johnson, meanwhile, backtracked from his earlier comments, saying they were “dead incorrect.”

“Everybody’s heard of Pavillion Wyoming,” Johnson is heard telling the audience in an audio recording posted on the Gem County website. “Pavillion was a leaking above ground pit that was not lined. Did the industry cause it? Yes they did. Are they mitigating it? Yes they are. But should we have to mitigate it? No, that’s why we require lined pits that have been sealed and certified by a professional engineer.”

The statement initially appeared like a strong rebuke of previous statements made by Wyoming officials, who questioned the analysis of a 2011 draft report by the Environmental Protection Agency tentatively linking hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in a decades-old gas field east of Pavillion to groundwater contamination there. Industry representatives and some Pavillion residents claim groundwater in the area has long been contaminated by naturally occuring substances.

But much like the EPA investigation, which was dropped last summer and turned over to Wyoming to complete, Johnson backed away from his initial comments. In an interview Wednesday, he said a recent conversation with Grant Black, Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor, convinced him he was “dead incorrect” to attribute pollution to industry. His statements about the pits and poorly constructed wells are unproven, he said. “He set me straight and told me I was wrong,” Johnson said. Black could not be reached for comment.

Johnson’s Gem County remarks were based on a case study about Pavillion presented at a conference he attended in Houston, Johnson said. The study by Lisa Denke, an engineer with two decades of experience in the energy industry, concluded contamination outside the town was caused by poorly built wells and disposal pits without liners, he said. “I assumed when I was down there she was a qualified professional and everything she was saying was vetted,” Johnson said. “We paid $1,500 a person to go to that.” Asked why he no longer accepted Denke’s conclusion’s, Johnson replied, “I can’t prove them. I made a mistake here. I cannot as a scientist come forth with a repeatable conclusion.”

Denke, in a separate interview, said her study largely compared U.S. Geological Survey groundwater tests taken during the 1950s and 1960s in the Pavillion area to the results published in the EPA’s draft report in 2011. The results’ Ph levels had increased beyond “something I think you would find in nature,” she said. However, she also noted such levels could not be attributed to fluids used for fracking alone, and thus merited further study. Her research also concluded that some of the wells in the area were poorly built, she said. It did not mention disposal pits. [Emphasis added]

In Pavillion, Wyoming Water Contamination Case, Questions Continue To Swirl About Oil and Gas Industry’s Role by Sharon Kelly, February 6, 2014,
A funny thing happened when Idaho Dept. of Lands Oil and Gas Program Manager Robert Johnson stepped to the microphone at a public hearing this past fall. He said something that many have long suspected, but few officials have actually been willing to say bluntly and publicly.

He said that the oil and gas industry was responsible for the contaminated groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming….

“Did the industry cause it?” Mr. Johnson said. “Yes they did.”

His statement is noteworthy because, before coming to Idaho, Mr. Johnson was directly involved with the Pavillion investigation. He worked for the groundwater division of the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office
, which has taken the lead role in the contamination investigation.

The comments, which were recorded by county officials and distributed by anti-drilling advocates, were also significant because they were so candid and because the state of Wyoming maintains that more study is needed before blame can be assigned. The state is currently investigating the Pavillion incident and expects to publish a report in September of this year.

His allegation directly contradicts the position of oil and gas company, Encana, which still maintains on its website that tests show “no impacts from oil and gas development” on Pavillion’s groundwater. This fall, Encana, which drilled the oil and gas wells that locals suspect caused the pollution, made a $1.5 million grant to Wyoming to help fund the state report….

It is the latest development in an ongoing and embarrassing drama that has left locals reliant on water cisterns for their drinking water while state, federal and industry experts battle over the causes and public relations executives attempt to gin up doubts about the oil and gas industry’s role.

In June, the EPA announced it was pulling out of Pavillion, amid concerns about the expense of the investigation and allegations from drilling advocates that its 2011 draft report on Pavillion would not survive peer review. The 2011 EPA report made headlines because its data suggested that contamination was linked to fracking, contradicting industry claims that the process had never contaminated groundwater.

Such claims have been widely debunked since then. But the industry still often repeats them.

While the oil and gas industry asserted that the natural gas found in the water had formed naturally in the aquifer’s shallow rock layers (so-called biogenic gas), the EPA tests showed the gas bore the distinct signature of gas formed far below the surface (thermogenic gas). The discovery of thermogenic gas, along with chemicals associated with fracking, was strong evidence that fracking could have contaminated the town’s water.

In December, 2011, the EPA published a draft report that suggested fracking was responsible for the water contamination — and all hell broke loose.

The agency’s draft came under fire from oil and gas companies who claimed that EPA had bungled the investigation and made numerous technical mistakes. They argued that EPA had used a sample size that was too small and potentially even caused the contamination they found themselves when they were drilling test wells. “The Agency has failed to address significant concerns raised with the process and conclusions of the draft report, including … the use of a very limited and incomplete data sets to draw technically inadequate conclusions,” wrote Senators David Vitter and James Inhofe in a Jan. 17, 2013 letter to the EPA questioning the draft report in detail. The EPA, which had pointed to the costs of drilling the test wells as their primary constraints in the investigation, found itself under fire — and also under fiscal pressure. Sequestration hit. The agency’s budget was threatened by fiscal conservatives and from drilling proponents in Congress alike.

So this summer, the EPA announced that it was pulling out of the Pavillion case, leaving a cloud of suspicion around its 2011 report’s conclusions. … But lost in the hullabaloo was the fact that EPA still backed the data in the 2011 report, and it extracted promises from Wyoming officials to incorporate that data in the state’s investigation.

The Pavillion withdrawal was part of a wave of abandoned EPA fracking investigations. The agency backed away from its investigation into Dimock, PA and into allegations that Range Rources polluted Steve Lipsky’s water well in Texas. Drilling supporters suggested that the investigations had been a politically-motivated witch-hunt, unsupported by science. Within the past month, however, new life has been breathed into the investigation in Texas, after the EPA’s internal watchdog found that the agency had solid reasons to pursue its investigation. And the EPA never concluded that the industry hadn’t contaminated Dimock, Pennsylvania’s water, it simply said that it wasn’t worth spending the money to pursue the investigation because affected residents now had or expected to arrange for access to clean drinking water.

The long back and forth over these high profile cases also brings into stark relief a major problem with policing the oil and gas industry: figuring out exactly how companies caused pollution isn’t just technically challenging, it’s expensive. The EPA’s draft report may have suffered technical flaws or it may have been sound — without a peer review process, we’ll never know. But the agency was already operating on a budget that limited its ability to conduct a full investigation. … But then, spending money to conclusively and indisputably prove that fracking caused contamintion is costly — too expensive, in fact, for the federal government to undertake. And without proof that fracking caused harm, they argue, the process should remain unregulated. [Regulating frac’ing does not protect water or families. The only way to protect water and health is to stop fracing. Emphasis added]

Wyoming to spend another $400,000 on water for Pavillion by The Associated Press, January 30, 2014
The state of Wyoming will spend at least another $400,000 to provide water to Pavillion-area homeowners with polluted groundwater. A policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead, Jerimiah Rieman, announced the funding during a meeting with residents last week. The extra money will come from a $1.5 million grant from Encana Corp., the biggest driller in the Pavillion field. The state is supplying cisterns to homeowners who say their water turned foul around the time that hydraulic fracturing picked up about eight years ago. Rieman also announced that a recently drafted budget bill would add another $150,000 to the program. Lawmakers appropriated $750,000 for it in 2012 but most of that has been spent. The state now also plans to provide water too. The state is investigating the contamination. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to:

Encana builds water treatment facility in Wyoming after taking over funding of EPA study that showed Encana’s frac’ing and waste pits contaminated drinking water in Wyoming

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