Open Spaces
5:03 pm
Fri July 27, 2012

Investigation Of Contaminated Pavillion Water Presses On

HOST: In December, the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft report tentatively linking water contamination in the town of Pavillion to hydraulic fracturing activities in the area. The release of the draft report caused a spectacle, and state, federal and tribal agencies have now caught in a bureaucratic holding pattern, while residents affected by contaminated water wait in a form of investigative limbo. Wyoming Public Radio’s Tristan Ahtone attended a recent Pavillion Work Group meeting to get updates on the investigation.

TRISTAN AHTONE: It’s the first Pavillion Work Group meeting held in months, however, as of Wednesdays latest meeting, Pavillion residents still have no idea as to what’s contaminating their water. Nearly six years ago residents in the farming and ranching community began complaining of health problems they blamed on water contamination. They went to the state to get help in figuring out what was going on, but the state brushed them off. Instead, Pavillionites went to the Environmental Protection Agency for help, and the EPA then entered the investigation. In December, 2012, the EPA released a draft report linking hydraulic fracturing to water contamination in the area which has become a source of heated debated. However, the EPA’s Ayn Schmit says there is definitely a problem in the area.

AYN SCHMIDT: We certainly believe that EPA’s data show that there is contamination in the aquifer.

AHTONE: Again, the report was JUST a draft… but when it was released, Encana – who operates wells in the area, and contributes greatly to Wyoming’s economy… as well as the state – freaked out. It later came to light that governor Matt Mead pushed the EPA to withhold their draft analysis an entire month to give the state enough time to come up with viable rebuttals to scuttle the report. Encana called the EPA’s investigation unsound science. Paul Ulrich, with Encana, maintains this line of argument even today.

PAUL ULRICH: Encana felt the data set was incomplete, in our estimation two samples does not get you to a point where you need to be drawing conclusions. More samples, more effective samples, in our opinion, were needed before any conclusions could be drawn.

AHTONE: So with contaminated groundwater, and numerous state, federal and tribal  agencies investigating – the Pavillion Working Group was formed: a group of government, industry officials and residents tasked to review and discuss data associated with the investigation – as well as clean-up, jurisdiction and who’s paying the bills.

John Fenton is the only person on the group, but he says he’s been kept out of the loop.

JOHN FENTON: I find that really troubling, and that’s kind of the same way we’ve been treated out there. No one has any authority that can do anything, we’re expected to look out for ourselves as land owners and catch the problems, and then find somebody to rectify those.

AHTONE: Pavillion residents acknowledge it’s suspicious that representatives of Encana are even permitted to be part of an independent investigation of their own company.

FENTON: And you see a real inequality with that because there’s one of us from the affected community on there, myself, and EnCana has… there were three or four of them sitting at the table. I think we should have multiple community members.

AHTONE: At Wednesdays public work group meeting the audience included members of the EPA representatives, the state Oil & Gas commission, Wyoming Department of Water Quality, Encana , US Geological Survey, a tribal official, a water development officer, and an advisor for the Governor. Jerimiah Rieman is governor Meads Natural Resource Advisor. He says jurisdiction, for instance, over groundwater is contentious.  

JEREMIAH RIEMAN: I think we still have some unanswered questions about… who has responsibility for the down-hole, and or surface activities on tribal land, bureau of rec., and this is one of those instances where we’ve got a lot of federal minerals that are owned by various different agencies: BLM, Bureau of Reclamation, the tribes are involved there.

AHTONE: The EPA hopes to collaborate with stakeholders to find a source of contamination in Pavillion, and mitigate it. In past analysis of water in the area, the EPA has found elevated levels of benzene, synthetic organic chemicals, petroleum hydrocarbons and recently, naphthalene – a chemical often used in moth balls. However, Encana wants them to look at other potential sources of contamination as well, and compile a list of possible culprits.

ULRICH: It’s gotta be a good scrubbed list, but other potential sources out there could include old dumps, septic systems and who knows what else.

Ahtone: So how can the audience judge if it’s a good scrubbed list then?

Ulrich: [silence]

AHTONE: Ulrich was unable to answer the question. The EPA also wants to look at oil and gas pits that are now out of commission, and that Encana has voluntarily remediated by varying standards. The EPA’s Ayn Schmit says that might be insufficient.

SCHMIDT: The overall objective is to be sure that in an area where we do see constituents in drinking water wells that cause us some concern, that we have a careful look at the degree to which any pits may be posing a current or a future risk to drinking water.

AHTONE: The discussions from this meeting were full of jargon and hard to follow, and that was troubling for members of the public. Eespecially, residents from Pavillion in attendance, like John Fenton.

FENTON: Trying to learn geology and the science behind this and trying to keep up on all the rules and regulations is very difficult when you’re running a farm or a ranch, and as you seen today, the people who are in charge of this don’t even know whose authority a lot of this goes under, so a lot of this is really time consuming and really confusing for the  average person no matter how well studied you are on it.

AHTONE: This isn’t the last work group, but at this point, there are two major questions on people’s minds: first, when new data is released from state and federal agencies, will Encana dispute it and derail the process again? The second is that if a final conclusion is reached, who will be held responsible for contamination, and more importantly who will pay to clean it up? Pavillion residents are eager to see who the new Oil and Gas commissioner will be – as that may help expedite the process and be more open to feedback from Pavillion. As you may recall, the former Oil and Gas Commissioner, Tom Doll, left his position in disgrace in June, after announcing that the Pavillion residents affected by contaminated ground water were primarily in search of a payout from fracking operators. For Wyoming Public Radio News, I’m Tristan Ahtone.