PAVILLION, WY—Jeff and Rhonda Locker’s water changed abruptly one day in the mid-1990s while Rhonda was doing the laundry. A Denver-based gas company was working over an old well in back of their house. Suddenly, the wash water turned black. “It happened just like that,” Jeff Locker says. “I stopped him and asked him what he did to our water, and of course he didn’t do anything to our water… It’s been bad ever since.”
Donna Meeks’ well water was so good, she used to haul it to town for the school office coffee pot. Neither she nor her husband Louis, noticed anything wrong until her co-workers stopped drinking the coffee. It was 2004, and a Canadian company, EnCana, had just drilled a new well about 500 feet from the Meeks home. Some visiting friends later said they noticed the water tasted and smelled like gas, but didn’t want to be rude by saying anything about it.
John and Cathy Fenton had no reason to suspect there was anything wrong with their water—it tasted fine. But just to be neighborly, they went along with the Lockers, the Meeks, and other Pavillion-area residents when the Environmental Protection Agency came in 2009 for an initial round of testing. That’s when they found out that their family had been drinking water laced with methane. Follow-up tests a year later found a large collection of semi-volatile organic compounds in the family’s stock well.
There’s something karmic about the possibility that Pavillion, Wyoming, might be the first community to prove its water damaged by natural gas production. While water literally is life everywhere in the arid West, here it’s the epicenter for deep social and political divisions.
Pavillion sits exposed to the wind and weather on the rolling high plains of the Wind River Valley’s northern flank. The town boasts two bars, two restaurants, one grocery, and serves as a social center for the community of farms and ranches that populate the Midvale irrigation district. It’s the schools—practically brand new—that bring people together here, says Jeff Locker, who sits on the school board. “Even retired people come to the ball games,” he says. By ball, Locker means basketball. This is a reservation town and basketball is its sport.
The Eastern Shoshone chose the oblong-shaped valley as their home in 1868 for its relatively temperate winter weather. They were joined here nine years later by the Northern Arapaho, when the Great White Father, in his wisdom, decided the traditional enemies ought to live together.
The Bureau of Reclamation proclaimed in the early 1900s the Indians weren’t using their land to its fullest potential, so the federal government opened the reservation to homesteaders who settled the north side of the Wind River. Native communities concentrated on the south side. Rich with scenery and poor in industry, the towns all are small, none with more than a few traffic lights.
The Anglos immediately started digging ditches (Midvale being the largest) and diverting water for flood irrigation, decimating fisheries and essentially turning the Wind River into a slough at certain times of the year. The tribes fought back, as chronicled in Geoffrey O’Gara’s book What You See In Clear Water, eventually winning a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that the water was theirs to allocate. But the state declined to enforce the ruling and the reservation communities still simmer with bitterness over this injustice.
Water also links everyone—lakes and creeks from both the Anglo and Indian sides of the reservation empty into the Wind River, connecting towns from Dubois at the far western end of the valley to Riverton, which is 80 miles downstream. What biologists call the nation’s “charismatic megafauna” populate the mountains that ring and define the basin. Grizzlies, wolves, moose and lion haunt the Owl Creek, Wind River, Absaroka, and Granite ranges.
Now, Pavillion area farmers and ranchers have learned that the water they fought so hard to control is—in places—undrinkable.
Just a couple years ago, the dynamics of energy development in the United States changed dramatically. A 2008 U.S. Geological Survey inventory of oil and gas resources had predicted the nation would exhaust its undiscovered onshore federal natural gas reserves of roughly 200 trillion cubic feet in 50 years, more or less. But industry researchers announced later that year that by combining two technologies—hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling—some companies had been able to wrest gas from shale in Pennsylvania and Texas. This innovation exploded established estimates, with more than 500 trillion cubic feet possibly lying trapped in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale alone. Theoretically, this success could be reproduced in shale formations all over the country.
Hydraulic fracturing has been around for more than 100 years, but is nonetheless a marvel of human ingenuity. Basically, it involves leaving perforations in the cement casing that lines an oil or gas well, pumping water, sand and a variety of complex chemicals into the well through these holes at such high pressures that the surrounding rock cracks and releases whatever fossil fuel treasures it holds. Some of the liquids and chemicals used in the process are recovered—often much is not.
A 2004 EPA study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater in coal bed methane deposits found that a third of fracturing fluids are expected to be left behind, and that these “will likely be transported by groundwater flowing according to regional hydraulic gradients.” There are more than 30 water-bearing formations lying under the Wind River Valley. According to the USGS, a lot of intermingling goes on down there.
But EnCana is skeptical. A spokesman from America’s largest natural gas producer and owner of the Pavillion area fields declined an interview, but answered questions in writing. Spokesman Randy Teeuwen explains that the weight of the overlying rock keeps fracking chemicals from mixing with other zones. “It’s based on the law of physics,” he writes. “The volume of fluids required to create a fracture from several thousand feet below the surface that would push through layers of solid rock to a domestic well several hundred feet below the surface is significantly greater by an order of magnitude than any fracture operations ever employed in Pavillion.”
The state of Wyoming has the strictest fracking disclosure requirements in the nation. Tom Doll, of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (the state permitting and watchdog agency), says he believes that despite whatever happened in the past, Wyoming’s current layers of rules make contamination unlikely. “As part of their plan… they have to run their surface casing at least 120 feet deeper than the deepest permitted water supply well,” he says. “They have to identify to us any ground waters that they might drill through… And then when they do the well stimulation, they have to provide us with the estimated pressures and the estimate height of the frack and the length of the frack as part of their plan.” Wyoming also now requires companies to divulge the kinds and amounts of chemicals they frack with—the first state to do so. If all that information comes together, Doll says, it becomes “easy to prove” that contamination hasn’t happened.
While the EPA is now conducting a study about the effects of fracking chemicals on people’s drinking water (with initial results due out by the end of 2012), fracking was exempted from the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act in President Bush’s landmark 2005 Energy Policy Act and regulation was left to the states. This exemption is often referred to as the Halliburton Loophole, named after a prominent fracking company.
But as the U.S. ramped up its domestic onshore exploration and production, disturbing reports began leaking out of Pavillion and the rest of the country’s gas fields. In the documentary film Gasland, Americans were treated to footage of people lighting their tap water on fire, ostensibly because of contamination from hydraulic fracturing. People repeated the refrain to journalists from the nonprofit ProPublica and anyone else who would listen: Our water was good and now it’s bad. But they had no baseline data, which allowed industry executives to appear before a Congressional committee in 2009 and deny any connection, correctly pointing out that no one has proved such a link. Not anywhere. Not ever.
The state capital in Cheyenne is called the People’s House. Like a lot of Western legislatures, it is populated by part-time representatives who travel here for 40-day sessions every other year. They used to wear Carhartt and cowboy hats at their real jobs, but the gas boom in Wyoming has changed all that. “Now it’s filled with suits,” Jeff Locker says. “It’s different.”
This could account for Louis Meeks’ frustration as he tried to get someone to help him with his water. He called EnCana, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the state Department of Environmental Quality. The DEQ asked EnCana to test the Meeks water repeatedly, at least eleven times in three years. The results always came back clean. The governor’s office finally asked Meeks not to call any more. In 2005, Meeks decided to drill himself a new water well. At 240 feet, it exploded. “They figured it was making two million cubic feet of gas,” he says.
About that time, Meeks and his neighbors starting getting sick. Louis was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and Donna underwent eight operations for polyps in her lungs. Louis has neuropathy, and so does Rhonda Locker. “When it first started, she described it has someone driving, running a knife through her bones in her legs,” her husband Jeff says.
She went to the University of Denver for toxicological tests, but was told that unless they knew what to look for, “well, there’s so many tests and they’re so expensive that you can’t do it.” The toxicologist told the Lockers the chemicals that might have precipitated her illness had probably not lingered long enough to be identified. “The damage is there, but the evidence is gone,” Jeff says. “And sometimes I wonder if we still should be living there, but I don’t know. That’s our home.”
Even if the Lockers decided to leave, they’d have a hard time finding a buyer for their house. In 2009, John and Cathy Fenton pushed the issue with the county appraiser’s office, protesting their property tax valuation on seven different grounds related to the impacts of oil and gas. As a result, nine Paradox-area families have had their taxes reduced—and their home values cut in half.
In the meantime, Meeks ran out of patience with the state of Wyoming. In 2008, he got through to the regional EPA in Denver. By early 2009, the feds were on the scene.
The EPA narrowed its focus to domestic water wells within a four-mile radius of a gas well pad just north and west of the Meeks house, affecting the drinking water of an estimated 123 people. They flushed each water well with three times its volume to ensure they were getting at the groundwater itself. They tested for a range of chemicals not commonly included in water analyses and looked for contaminants at levels far below public health standards. Also, some of these constituents, EPA project director Greg Oberley says, are so uncommon there are no health standards for them.
The EPA found two so-called “contaminants of concern” in six wells: two forms of a volatile organic compound called adamantane, and 2-butoxyethanol (2-BE), a solvent used in fracking foaming agents that is suspected of causing ailments from cancer to respiratory issues and nervous system problems. The EPA also found methane in eight wells. Investigators began referring to the contamination as a plume.
The second round of tests in 2010 confirmed the initial contaminants, and as well as finding petroleum compounds in 17 out of 19 water wells tested. The EPA sank three monitoring wells that found more petroleum compounds in the groundwater itself.
Fracking could have polluted the water, the EPA says, but so could have any of the 32 reserve pits lying around the field, used by gas companies over the years to temporarily store mud and liquids from the drilling and production process. EnCana has entered three of these pits into the state’s voluntary remediation program.
A third possibility would be the gas wells themselves. According to Tom Doll, of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, there are several which regulators believe could have poor structural integrity.
One of the chemicals found—2-BE—is an ingredient in household cleaners. EnCana—which acquired the fields in 2004 when it bought out the Denver-based Tom Brown company—is quick to offer these and other alternatives, though the idea leaves locals like Jeff Locker wondering how many gallons of Simple Green he would have had to pour down his 460-foot well for it to have shown up on EPA tests after all the purging.
Without any other kind of major industry anywhere near this rural landscape, the list of culprits is short. The EPA’s Greg Oberley says methane has a fingerprint which can be analyzed and linked—or not—to the gas EnCana has been producing.
EnCana spokesperson Randy Teeuwen points out that the groundwater in the Wind River Basin historically has been marginal, with high levels of salt, sulfate and total dissolved solids. Teeuwen notes as well that derivatives of adamantanes are used in vaccines and hydraulic fluid, and 2-BE can come from rubber gaskets and washers. “In all cases,” he writes, “We don’t believe these compounds are associated with oil and gas.”