Water Investigation Continues at Slow Drip

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Pavillion is a ranching community on a dead-end road that emerged from obscurity after the discovery of pollution in domestic water wells. Residents point to nearby oil and gas operations as a cause, while the field operator notes there’s no definitive evidence to back up the claim. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)
Pavillion is a ranching community on a dead-end road that emerged from obscurity after the discovery of pollution in domestic water wells. Residents point to nearby oil and gas operations as a cause, while the field operator notes there’s no definitive evidence to back up the claim. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

WyoFile.com - There were frustratingly few answers for Pavillion-area residents, and interested parties throughout the nation in the most recent report in the ongoing groundwater pollution investigation in central Wyoming. At the same time, industry officials say the report helps to affirm that there’s still no evidence to connect polluted drinking water to oil and gas activity.

The latest: There’s missing information both for domestic-water and natural-gas wells, and the investigation requires a “comprehensive geologic and hydrologic study of the Wind River Formation within the Pavillion Field,” according to the report.

It’s been nearly 10 years since residents first reported their drinking water wells went bad overnight as nearby natural gas wells were fracked, and it may be a year or more before there are definitive answers as to whether there’s an evidentiary connection.

“I’m 64, my wife is 60,” said Louis Meeks, who was among the first residents in the area to experience a sudden change in their domestic water wells. “We’re getting tired. I’d like to get out of here but I just can’t do it.”

Meeks said he can’t afford to move unless or until he’s made whole to restore running water for both domestic and agricultural use. That would require holding somebody accountable, if they are to blame.

The preliminary “Pavillion Field Well Integrity Review” was made public Aug. 6. The report is now under a 30-day public comment period (read on to find out how to comment).

Pavillion resident Louis Meeks holds a jar of his tap-water that smells like diesel fuel. Pollution crept into his well and when he tried to drill another, it blew out from underground pressure he believes came from nearby gas operations. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)It’s the first new report since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency turned the investigation over to the state of Wyoming more than a year ago, an action that capped a couple of highly contentious years between the EPA and Gov. Matt Mead’s administration. The EPA in 2011 preliminarily determined that chemicals commonly used in fracking contributed to contaminated drinking water. State and industry officials pointed to several deficiencies in the drilling and testing methods of two monitoring wells commissioned by EPA, which led to the federal agency’s preliminary finding.

In handing control of the investigation back to the state of Wyoming, EPA has said it will stand by its preliminary findings. None of the parties have backed away from its assertions. While residents and landowner advocates contend there may not yet be a comprehensive picture to connect or exonerate oil and gas activity, the Pavillion field operator, Encana, says the latest report helps support its position.

“From our standpoint, the report confirms natural gas wells in the Pavillion field were soundly constructed and provide no pathway to domestic water wells,” Encana spokesman Doug Hock told WyoFile. “There are still questions to be answered … but we feel good about the conclusion of this (preliminary report.)”

The preliminary Integrity Review is one of three reports the state of Wyoming promised to conduct in its Pavillion groundwater investigation. The other two reports that the state is working on concurrently include a look at oil and gas surface pits (some known to be contaminated) and a review of domestic water wells and water resources in the area.

Pavillion ranchers don’t own much of the mineral rights beneath their properties. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

What’s in the report

The well-integrity review is headed by Bob King on behalf of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. King began the work while serving as interim Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor. The state commissioned him to continue the work as a consultant after it hired a permanent supervisor.

King reviewed 50 oil and gas wells close to 15 domestic water wells identified by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality as having “quality and palatability issues.” The 15 domestic water wells ranged from 3-  to 750-feet deep.

“Of the fifteen domestic water wells reviewed in this report, three water wells were drilled to a depth deeper than the surface casing depths of oil and gas wells in the surrounding one quarter mile area,” the report says.

Longtime oil and gas geologist Jimmy Goolsby said he agrees with the analysis in the report that suggests the surface casing not extending as deep as the bottom of the domestic wells does not mean there’s an open pathway from gas wells to water wells.

“It means you don’t have double protection,” Goolsby told WyoFile. “You’ve got casing (of the gas well bores) below where water wells produce, it’s just not surface casing. … What you may or may not have … is cement between the pipe and the rock.”

“While that is not ideal, go back to the fact they found no (leaks),” Hock told WyoFile. “This alone doesn’t determine if gas will migrate,” he said, adding that the state’s review showed no evidence of pressure differentials that would indicate communication or leaky gas wells.

King’s review also notes missing data of cement-bonding logs for some gas wells, but he reiterated that none of the missing data in the overall review of oil and gas wells indicates a likelihood or potential for leaks. The missing data doesn’t seem to mask the potential for leaks, according to King.

John Fenton (left) and neighbor Jeffrey Locker in Pavillion visit the site of an EPA monitoring well drilled to help determine the source of pollution in residents’ water wells. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)“We saw no evidence that there was communication” between targeted gas production zones and domestic water zones, King told WyoFile.

King said the data he analyzed is missing detailed information of frack jobs performed in the 1980s and 1990s. He said that while the field operator supplied all information as required by the state during its activities in the mid-2000s, the state now requires a more comprehensive set of well-activity reporting. However, his analysis still shows no evidence of the potential for leaks.

In his preliminary report, King suggests a thorough analysis cannot be complete without a “comprehensive geologic and hydrologic study of the Wind River Formation within the Pavillion Field.” This is information, King said, he did not have. It should require no new field work to gather the data, he said, but the inclusion of existing geologic and hydrologic characterization of the Pavillion field would help complete the picture. Much of this information may be gathered from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Wyoming State Geological Survey and Encana. Encana’s geological and hydrological database, as is common in the oil and gas industry, is considered proprietary.

“If (the state had) a geologic review that included work done by all the parties I think it would add to the picture to look at the likelihood of communication between gas wells and water wells,” King told WyoFile.

Further complicating the incomplete database under review by the state is the fact that some Pavillion area residents have not allowed the state to inspect their domestic water wells, according to the state.

“I don’t think it’s simple,” said geologist Goolsby. “Obviously if it was, it would have been figured out.”


Pure water dispensers are ubiquitous in Pavillion residences, like this one in a kitchen on Jeffrey Locker’s property.No satisfaction

Goolsby said the geology of the Pavillion field is complex and highly invariable. Water- and gas-production zones are intermingled. Some water zones also contain gas. Petroleum production here dates back many decades, as does agricultural use.

“Will we ever have a complete picture? It may be in the eye of the beholder,” said Goolsby.

In the meantime, the state of Wyoming continues with its three-pronged investigation focusing on natural gas wells, surface pits, and domestic water wells. Industry claims some level of validation based on the fact that this latest preliminary report finds no smoking gun — albeit there are missing data.

Meeks and several of his neighbors still mistrust Encana and the Mead administration for their gusto in lashing out against EPA for its initial findings in 2011, and for the fact that it’s been nearly 10 years of living with temporary water solutions and few answers.

“Somebody needs to be accountable for this,” said Meeks who, like his neighbors, contend their domestic water wells were mostly fine before Encana’s frack jobs in the mid-2000s. “People say if you don’t like it, then move out. Well I’ve got everything invested in this place.”

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