John Fenton's water went bad about six years ago. "Our water well’s only 12 years old," he says. "We drilled it when we built the house… then it started to change and [get] bubbly with gas." Around that same time, other residents in the nearby town of Pavillion began complaining of changes in their water, and shortly after, started noticing health problems. Many in the town wondered if local oil and gas development, as well as hydraulic fracturing was to blame.
Pavillion is within the boundaries of the Wind River Reservation and is mainly a farming and ranching community. "To the south of where we live there’s a big sandstone ridge—really neat spires and arches," says Fenton. "And to the north of us is the Owl Creek Mountains, really a pretty area."
The area’s also rich in oil and gas, which means right smack in the middle of that idyllic farming picture is a massive concentration of oil and gas wells operated by Canadian energy company, EnCana. "Every window, every door, every porch you look off of there’s a giant production tank that’s 20 feet tall," says Fenton. "There’s a well head, and there’s a big production pad that’s stained with oil and spills."
Around the same time the water started going weird in Pavillion, EnCana started increasing oil and gas production, and residents began noticing things like intense headaches, loss of smell and taste, memory problems and respiratory issues.
They asked the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and other state agencies for help. Their pleas were ignored. "They seemed to think there was really nothing wrong going on out here," says Fenton. "A lot of times when they referenced tests results, it was EnCana’s test results. They weren’t willing to do their own work; they were very chummy with the industry.
Residents decided to do something about it themselves: they got organized. Representatives from the Powder River Basin Resource Council helped Fenton and his neighbors put pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct tests on the areas groundwater, and starting in 2009, the EPA began testing water, and building monitoring wells. "We did find methane with the chemical signature indicating that it comes from the gas production reservoir," says Ayn Schmit, EPA Watershed and Aquifer Protection Unit Chief. "We found fairly widespread occurrence of diesel and or gasoline range organics at low levels.”
Schmit says they also found organic compounds like sodium and sulfate in very high levels, but added that those compounds naturally occur in the area. However, Schmit says other contaminants they found like benzene—a chemical found in crude oil and other petrochemicals—exceeded maximum EPA levels. In 2010, The agency for toxic substances and disease registry, which has also been involved in the investigation, recommended that some residents avoid drinking the water based on several factors including “chemicals found in the well water, the possibility of further contamination from nearby groundwater, and the lack of health information for some of the compounds found”.
In the fall of 2011, a second round of EPA well-testing was released; it showed several organic chemicals, synthetic organic chemicals, high PH levels that didn't match PH found in the rest of the aquifer, and a lot of methane. So much methane, in fact, that the water bubbled. Schmit says the methane carried a chemical signature similar to methane found in the area’s gas reservoir—as opposed to naturally produced methane found in a peat bog or what’s made by bacteria. However, analysis pointed to no conclusive reason as to why those chemicals were in the water. "I’ve got a lot of the chemicals in my well," says Pavillion resident Jeff Locker. "Nothing real high, except real high methane levels, and they did find some glycols, a class of organic compounds found in alcohol in a lot of wells… so that’s a very big concern to me."
Locker is one of many residents who have complained about water changes over the last few years and health problems, and his wife suffers from severe neuropathy—a disorder that occurs when nerves outside the brain and spinal cord are damaged, which locker believes could be a result of water contamination, and specifically, glycols.
EnCana and the state of Wyoming are now paying to have bottled water delivered to all residents in Pavillion based on recommendations from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry until a final, permanent solution for their water can be found. The agency also recommended that residents who bathe with the water open their windows while showering.
In 2010, Pavilion brought in chemist Wilma Subra, a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” grantee, to conduct a health survey. Subra began her research by looking at the list of chemicals found by the EPA in the water that was being used by residents, and then correlated them back to the health complaints of those residents. She found that 46 percent of the medical conditions reported by residents were associated with health impacts related to those chemicals. However, the question remained: what exactly was causing the water contamination? Armed only with EPA data and vague information on what chemicals were put into the ground by EnCana, things began to get murky: state and federal officials claimed that chemicals in the drinking water couldn’t be traced back to specific oil or gas activities, or fracking—a process that involves injecting sand, water and chemicals underground to release pockets of natural gas and oil. And with no baseline testing before energy production began, it was nearly impossible to tell what was in the water before people noticed changes.
"They’re saying they can’t say that those chemicals that were in the drinking water and ground water, they could trace back to specific hydraulic fracturing incidents or activities because it wasn’t reported by the companies," says Subra. Subra says she is now trying to get more information on exactly what chemicals Encana used in their “frack-juice” to find out if they are the same chemicals found in Pavillion’s groundwater.
In early December, the EPA released an analysis of data indicating that ground water in the aquifer contained compounds "likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing." This was the first report ever by the EPA to implicate hydraulic fracking as a possible source of water pollution.
Within hours of the release of those findings, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead claimed the EPA's study was scientifically questionable and that more testing should be done. At the same time, EnCana said “the EPA made critical mistakes and misjudgments” when it released its draft report linking water contamination in Pavillion to hydraulic fracturing. The company’s top environmental officer, David Stewart, said the results should be “reviewed by independent parties outside the EPA,” and suggested that the EPA may have been responsible for the contamination when it constructed its monitoring wells. Officials from the Wyoming Water Development Commission also slammed the EPA’s report, charging that samples were improperly tested—a claim that sources within the EPA have called a “mischaracterization.”
On February 1st, a representative from EPA Region 8 was called to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and Environment Subcommittee about the EPA’s approach to ground water research in Pavillion.
The hearing got off to a late start after filmmaker Josh Fox, director of the 2010 documentary Gasland, which focused on communities impacted by fracking, was arrested for trying to film the proceedings. Within minutes of the hearing being called to order, Republican Chairman Andy Harris slammed the EPA for what he called a “remarkable display of arrogance and disregard for the plain facts” when attacking fracking practices through what he called “scientific innuendo and regulatory straight-jacketing... EPA’s investigation of groundwater contamination in Pavillion appears to be yet another example of politics trumping policy and advocacy trumping science."
Witnesses at the hearing included Tom Doll, supervisor of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission; Kathleen Sgamma, a lobbyist with the Western Energy Alliance; Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a professor of the University of Pittsburgh; and James Martin, the regional administrator for Region 8 of the EPA.
Doll testified that the EPA report did not support a link between the petroleum chemicals and water problems. "The actual information that we’ve seen from the data tells us that this gas and water that is found in these two monitoring wells is different than the gas and water that’s found in the shallow drinking water aquifer," he said.
He posited that all substances in Pavillion water came from natural sources.
During the hearing, Representative Harris advanced EnCana’s theory that the EPA had contaminated its own monitoring wells. Doll agreed with that theory: “The experts from the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the Water Quality office all believe that this is induced contamination due to the drilling and completion of these two wells.”
According to Harris, the current investigation by the EPA is nothing more than an attempt to shut down oil and gas operations around the country. He was clearly eager to cut that off when he asked Martin: "Does the EPA think that the results of this investigation can be reasonably extrapolated to modern hydraulic fracturing being used, for example, in the Marcellus Shale which of course runs through my state?"
"Mr. Chairman the circumstances, the geologic conditions that exist with the Marcellus Shale are significantly different," said Martin.
"So you believe that these results really can’t be reasonably extrapolated to the Marcellus Shale?" asked Harris.
"We have not proposed to do anything of that sort Mr. Chairman," said Martin.
"Good," said Harris.
No Pavillion residents were invited to give testimony at the hearing, nor were tribal officials. "This whole situation is smack dab in the middle of our reservation," says Wes Martel, co-chair of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council. "Up to this point there have been very little direct discussions with us, not only by the citizens in Pavillion, but also the state of Wyoming, and up until the first week of February by the Environmental Protection Agency."
Martel says it’s critically important that both the Shoshone and Arapaho are involved in these discussions to make sure tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction is honored. Last week, tribal officials met with EPA administrators to get a better sense of their activities on the reservation, and Martel said he hopes EnCana will meet with the tribe soon.
"Under our tribal water code and under some of the environmental laws that have been upheld by the United States Supreme Court, we have civil jurisdiction over trust resources," says Martel, “so that’s why we’re trying to make sure that we obtain all of the technical information and are then in a position to determine how we move forward under any legal or administrative opportunities that we have."
Big picture, Martel says the fracas in Pavillion may be the first of many similar confrontations in Indian country. “You’ve got Fort Berthold up in North Dakota where there’s a lot of fracking and development going on, you got Fort Peck and a lot of reservations up in the northern tier of the Great Plains region,” he says. “In New York and Pennsylvania a few tribes are going to be affected by the Marcellus Shale and some other developments. I think this is a real learning process for tribes, to make sure that we fully understand all of the ramifications of this development, [and] that we work together to make sure we help develop our technical administrative presence and can address these issues”
Martel says the Wind River Tribes are pro-development, but that they’re also pro-environment. His concern is that while revenue, jobs and tax dollars are all needed on the reservation, the land and water also need to be protected. “Water is a very sacred gift from the creator,” he says, “and once you destroy your water, what do you have?”
Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commissioner Tom Doll says the biggest problem at Pavililion is that no baseline testing was done in the area before drilling began; he suspects there will never be any conclusive evidence as to the source of the water contamination. “We’re working together to try to solve these issues and try to get away from the blame game and get to the bottom line and try to get some resolution and some closure,” he says. “I think it’s important that people can put things behind them and move on.”
However, that’s a sentiment that doesn’t sit well with many residents of Pavillion. “My wife and my mother-in-law have both lost their sense of smell and taste and so have some of the neighboring women,” says Fenton. “And it happened after the drilling or during the drilling.”