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EPA tells town on Wind River Indian Reservation: Don’t drink the water

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PAVILLION, Wyo. – The residents of Pavillion, a rural community on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming have been told by federal agencies not to drink their water and to use fans and ventilation while bathing or washing clothes to avoid the risk of explosion.

The warnings came in early September after a second set of testing and analysis by Environmental Protection Agency found benzene, metals, naphthalene, phenols, methane and other contaminants in groundwater and in area wells.

“It’s a concern,” said Mitchel Cottenoir, acting tribal water engineer for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, whose tribal government in Fort Washakie is some 30 miles from Pavillion. “The Tribal Water Quality Commission is looking into it and is working closely with the EPA.”

Many of Pavillion’s residents blame hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique used for nearly all of today’s natural gas extraction in which dangerous chemicals, mixed with millions of gallons of water and sand are injected at high pressure thousands of feet underground to create fissures in the rock and release the gas.

Cottenoir said the EPA hasn’t proven that fracking is the cause. The EPA is currently investigating whether extraction and drilling activities are the source of the contamination. The agency found that at least three water wells contained a chemical used in the fracking process.

The study is the first undertaken by the EPA, but it is made harder because gas companies can conceal the chemicals used in the process as trade secrets. The gas company that owns most of the wells near Pavillion is paying part of the cost of supplying drinking water to residents, while not accepting responsibility for the contamination.

Natural gas drilling is rapidly expanding across 31 states, and complaints like the ones from the residents of Pavillion have arisen across the country.

New York has blocked drilling within New York City’s watershed. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., told a federal hearing in mid-September that the EPA must regulate hydraulic fracturing.

In Pennsylvania, 13 families have filed lawsuit against a drilling company that is blasting fluids deep underground for allegedly leaking toxic fracking fluid into the groundwater, exposing residents to dangerous chemicals and sickening a child.

Pennsylvania’s Office of Homeland Security contracted with the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, who in part tracked anti-drilling activists, reporting them for such activities as screening the critical documentary “Gasland.” Local news reported that ITTR also reports anti-drilling activities to private energy firms, to which a Sierra Club representative responded has “a chilling effect” on the environmental community. After Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell learned of the tracking through news articles, he apologized to the citizenry, and terminated the ITTR contract.

In 1988, the EPA ruled that oil and gas wastes, even if toxic, were exempt from the hazardous waste provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The EPA exempted hydraulic fracturing when it assessed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005.

But last March, after Congress ordered the agency to conduct a fracking study to address concerns that the process may impact ground and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health, the agency announced it will conduct a comprehensive research study to investigate potential adverse impacts.

The EPA is also pressuring the energy companies to provide information about the chemicals used in the fracking process. As it is now the agency doesn’t know which chemicals to test groundwater for.

The oil and gas industry argues that their costs from federal regulation would cripple their business, and that state regulations are already strong. A few states have regulations, but they vary.