Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

Investigation finds no tie between fracking, water contamination

CASPER — A state investigation released Monday found no evidence linking fracking to contaminated groundwater east of Pavillion, confirming conclusions published in a previous water quality study. The report, conducted by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, concluded pollution in drinking water likely occurred naturally due to the permeable and shallow geology of the area.

This year’s report builds on a nearly decade-long investigation into water quality issues in the tiny, central Wyoming town. The latest phase of the investigation sought to address gaps in the state’s research of 13 water supply wells undertaken five years ago.

“We feel very comfortable and confident that the data that was collected can be considered defensible because of the time and attention to detail that (the Department of Environmental Quality) took in developing those work plans in collaboration with our consultant who performed the work,” said Lily Barkau, the department’s groundwater section program manager.

The absence of baseline data from before drilling commenced in the mid-20th century also limits scientists from determining the exact source of water contamination, the report stated.

“The findings were that the general geo-chemistry of the groundwater appears to be the source of issues to drinking water that exist out there,” Barkau told the Star-Tribune on Friday.

Landowners east of the Pavillion shale plays began expressing alarm over their drinking water’s foul odor and taste decades ago.

In 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched an investigation and subsequently released draft findings in 2011, theorizing the water’s toxicity could be connected to proximate fracking activity. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry cautioned residents not to drink the water.

The initial results catalyzed a contentious national debate over the potential consequences of hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a now-ubiquitous practice of injecting water, sand and chemicals into the ground to extract oil and gas.

But federal regulators ultimately passed the investigation to state regulators after a barrage of criticism from Wyoming lawmakers and industry over the incriminating results.

Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality announced in 2013 it would conduct a thorough study of the 12-square-mile Pavillion gas field, partially with the support of $1.5 million from Encana Oil and Gas USA, Inc., the Canadian-based company operating the gas field. The move drew sharp skepticism from several environmental groups and concerned landowners in Wyoming.

Encana has stood by the integrity of the state-led investigations, and responded positively to the most recent report.

“Encana applauds the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality for their tireless efforts to bring this investigation to a final report,” a spokeswoman for Encana said in a statement. “Although still reviewing the report in its entirety, we appreciate the (state regulators’) due diligence and collaboration with technical experts to collect and analyze the data from nearly 14,000 samples and bring this investigation to a scientific conclusion.”

As the extended investigation progressed, affected landowners received cisterns from the state to avoid bad water sourced from the area’s wells or aquifer.

Pavillion residents Jeff and Rhonda Locker sued Encana for withholding important information about their drinking water. The couple won a settlement in January 2018.

The Wyoming Legislature allocated an additional $300,000 to the most recent phase of water quality testing, according to Barkau. The cost of the 2016 and 2019 investigation was over $1.2 million.

State regulators will continue to grapple with and respond to the water quality issues plaguing Pavillion.

For one, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is also examining environmental contamination issues around the field’s old gas wells and disposal pits, based on the additional eight recommendations provided in the 2016 report. The commission is now reviewing an integrity well report from Encana. It is also conducting legacy pit investigations with the company, according to Supervisor Mark Watson.

The extended investigations headed by Wyoming regulators have sustained significant criticism from both Wyoming residents and the Environmental Protection Agency officials alike.

But the environmental quality department has vehemently defended what it has called a rigorous scientific process.

“When you talk about groundwater, it’s not simple,” Keith Guille, an agency spokesman said Friday. “There’s a lot of technical work that needs to go into it.” “I understand that it gets frustrating when answers are not always found right away, but it does take time,” he added. “Science is not overnight.”