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Governor calls for Pavillion study

Governor calls for Pavillion study

Monday, December 19, 2011

Governor calls for Pavillion study
A report by Wyoming PBS News partner, Wyoming Business Report
By Ernie Over


CHEYENNE - Pavillion residents earlier this month earned a new ally in their struggle to find the causes and solutions to contaminants fouling their water wells. In a narrative attached to Gov. Matt Mead's first budget submitted to the Wyoming State Legislature, the first-term chief executive said, "A broader investigation into Pavillion's groundwater issues is warranted."

There is no line item figure attached to the comment, but it is clear: Mead wants some answers, and he indicated that state officials have started a discussion with oil and gas industry and federal environmental agency representatives to find answers.

The governor favors additional research to not only determine the cause, but also the extent of the contamination. The additional studies would, in the governor's words, "result in a clearer understanding of the Pavillion groundwater challenges and assist in determining a resolution."

Pavillion residents gathered Nov. 8 and heard a preliminary report on findings of a nearly two-year-long investigation into the problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that water wells in the area were found with benzene levels 50 times the safe level for humans. There also were other contaminants, including high levels of methane and other chemicals. The report also indicated the presence of man-made compounds not found in nature.

Residents suspect the contamination comes from natural gas production, including ground water contamination from waste pits and infiltration of their water wells by a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, where chemicals are forced into the gas-bearing formation to release the gas.

The first natural gas well was drilled in the Pavillion area in the mid-1950s, with subsequent production occurring in the mid-'60s, '80s and '90s. But starting in 2000, when Encana Oil and Gas acquired the Tom Brown Co.'s leases, the number of producing wells ballooned from several dozen to 180 wells. Encana began using hydraulic fracturing to release greater quantities of gas after it acquired the leases. The field currently produces about 13 million cubic feet (mcf) of natural gas daily.

A spokesman for the Canadian-owned company denied Encana's wells are the cause of the contamination. "The science remains inconclusive, in terms of data, impact and source," Doug Hock said in published reports shortly after the Nov. 8 meeting. Despite the firm's denials, Encana has supplied bottled water to residents with contaminated wells since about last spring, according to one resident.

The controversy over the contamination recently scuttled the transfer of ownership of the Pavillion field. Midland, Texas-based Legacy Reserves LP had reached an agreement with Encana to purchase the field for $45 million. But the sale was called off in November due to ongoing publicity over the problem and the uncertainty of future development of significant natural gas reserves there. 


Residents frustrated

Jeff Locker was sitting at his dining room table late last month with two large manila file folders open before him. Holding a quarter-inch-thick document in his right hand, Locker said the initial report on the analysis for his home water well was 71 pages long. It contained reports from five different laboratories. The report did not contain good news.

Locker is one of nearly several dozen Pavillion-area residents with contaminated domestic water wells. He and his neighbors own and operate farms east of Pavillion where they grow alfalfa, malt barley, oat hay and sugar beets, and other crops on surface land they own. Others here raise cattle, sheep and horses.

Under the surface, however, is the Pavillion Natural Gas Field, a source of sweet gas. Wells that tap into the formation are drilled to a relatively shallow depth, ranging from about 700 to 1,800 feet.

Beginning in March 2009, the EPA began a comprehensive study of the area and took samples from soil, water wells and producing gas wells plus area streams, surface well sites and various other locations.

One of the EPA's two water monitor wells in East Pavillion is located on Locker's property, about 400 yards from his home in an adjacent alfalfa field. Several hundred feet from the monitor well is another one, but this one produces natural gas from a depth of about 1,500 feet.

There are a total of 15 natural gas wells within one-quarter mile of Locker's home, and two compressor stations for the pipelines that collect and carry the gas to market are nearby.

"You know, when this field was first developed, we all thought it was a good thing," Locker said.

"We received payment for surface disturbance and the wells were drilled. We went into this with our eyes closed. But I'm a lot smarter now. I've learned a lot about fracking and geology. Unfortunately, no baseline water studies were made before the development of the natural gas field began," he said.

Locker, who grew up on his parents' place near Midvale, bought his farm in East Pavillion in 1985. "We had excellent water here for 10 years, from a well 460 feet deep," he said. "And then, it went bad all at once. Ours was the first."

Locker recalled that day vividly. "The washing machine suddenly plugged up, the filter and pipes were clogged, and the water turned black and it had a strong odor," he said. "There was a work over rig operating at the gas well site about 1,000 feet from the house. I went over there and asked them what they were doing." He said he didn't get an answer.

The water suddenly became unfit for domestic use, so Locker said he had a second water well drilled, and it went down some 600 feet, but the water there was bad too, "with a bad taste and rotten egg smell," he said.

"You know," Locker said, "I never would've bought here if there was bad water, and now I can't sell."

Ernie Over, who grew up in Pavillion, is a frequent Wyoming Business Report contributor.

Wyoming Business Report