Late in the afternoon on Thursday Dec. 8, a group of people that have frequently called for answers over what happened to Pavillion’s water gathered in the restaurant at the Sundowner Station, a motel on the outskirts of Riverton.
The group included ranchers John Fenton and Jeff Locker, Powder River Basin Resource Council organizers Jill Morrison and Megan Taylor, and Mike Wireman. Wireman is a former investigator with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and career hydrogeologist who was hired by the group to bring his technical expertise to bear in scrutinizing the work of state regulatory agencies.
Wireman had spent part of the day on a tour of Pavillion with Fenton and Locker, who believe their water wells were contaminated by decades of oil and gas activity in the area. Locker is awaiting a judge’s decision on whether he can proceed with a lawsuit against Encana, the energy giant who currently owns the Pavillion area gas field. His wife, who Locker calls a former “jazzercise girl,” has suffered from at-times debilitating neuropathy issues and must keep to a regimen of pain medications to stay active. Locker contends that contamination in his drinking water is to blame.
The group was in Pavillion to attend an “open-house” meeting hosted by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, to discuss findings and recommendations contained in the agency’s November report. Titled “Pavillion, Wyoming Area Domestic Water Wells Final Report and Palatability Study,” the report had concluded it was unlikely hydraulic fracturing had led to the contamination of domestic water wells.
With the state’s report finalized, it seemed unclear before the meeting what recourse the Pavillion residents and their allies would have to push the state toward more investigation, which they believed was needed. At the meeting, however, DEQ officials said they intend to keep studying water quality in the area, and that the “final” report wasn’t as final as the name implied.
At the restaurant, Wireman talked about problems he saw in the report. “The scope of the effort for the work was inadequate. It did not address their goal,” he said. If, that is, the goal was to figure out what happened to Pavillion’s water.
He was disappointed that the state only sampled 14 water wells, out of 97 in the area of concern. It is also a problem, he said, that the state seems to have compared samples from those 14 wells to water quality standards, and called it quits when none of the samples exceeded those standards.
Even when contaminants in water samples didn’t exceed drinking water standards, Wireman said, the data could still be used by the state to better understand what impacts oil and gas could have had on the water supply.
“Those are the kinds of things that make this a poor study,” he said.
Though the report won’t change, Morrison, Fenton and Locker remain determined to keep up pressure on the DEQ and other involved agencies.
“If we just accept what they tell us and go away… that’s exactly what the state and everyone wants us to do,” Fenton said. He said he believes the state’s principal goal has been to exonerate the oil and gas industry, not unravel the mystery of his and his neighbors’ water wells. “They fixed their problem, not ours,” he said of the report.
“Unfortunately they’re two distinct problems,” Wireman added wryly, as the group prepared to leave the restaurant and head to the Central Wyoming College campus, where the DEQ’s open house was held.
A meeting goes awry
“The purpose of the meeting here tonight is to open up some discussion and dialogue, and answer questions that you might have,” Todd Parfitt, head of Wyoming DEQ, said, addressing a standing-room-only crowd in a small lecture hall. The proposed agenda was for Parfitt to give a brief introduction, and then for the public to mingle with representatives of the state agencies involved in Pavillion, who lined the walls of the room in jeans, boots and casual attire, standing next to posters and tables.
The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission was on hand for questions about the integrity of gas well construction, as were staffers with the Voluntary Remediation Program, a section of DEQ that works on waste sites companies voluntarily enroll for cleanup. VRP is in charge of remediating surface pits in the area enrolled in the program by Encana. Parfitt said there will be additional studies to try and trace possible contamination from those pits, which held waste materials from gas wells and the drilling process.
When Parfitt tried to direct the audience toward the different groups of regulators however, Jeff Locker raised his hand. “Todd,” he said, “I think there’s some of us who would like to hear questions from the other members of the group, instead of just sending us off to the corner.”
“Sure,” Parfitt answered, “we can do that for a little bit.”
They did that for the next 45 minutes, as Parfitt and others took questions from Locker, Fenton, Wireman and Jill Morrison, who were scattered throughout the audience, the rest of whom remained silent throughout the exchange.
Locker started out by noting that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency, had informed residents that their water was unsafe. “The state turned this into a palatability study,” he said, which was different from what the federal investigators had told him. “They said we shouldn’t drink our water, cook with it, bathe in it, wash our clothes. Is that because our water tastes bad or because it’s contaminated?” he asked Parfitt.
The DEQ director’s response was that the state was not done investigating issues with Locker and others’ water, and how those issues could have occurred.
“Just to be clear, the only thing that we have made a statement about regarding the oil and gas involvement is that we could not find a link between hydraulic fracking and anything in the wells. And we stand behind that,” Parfitt said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t some other activity associated with oil and gas development that may be contributing to basic palatability issues with the water.”
While the report concluded that it was bacteria, not fracking, that was causing issues in water supplies, Parfitt said the state would now endeavor to investigate the root causes of the bacteria, which could be connected to oil and gas activity.
Next, Wireman expressed the same doubts he’d mentioned back at the Sundowner, about only comparing water samples to standards, as opposed to using the samples to look at possible root causes of contamination. He asked if the state would look deeper at the data they had in an effort to examine the bigger picture of the area’s water supply.
Kevin Fredericks, administrator of the DEQ water quality division, said they would to an extent, although it would be difficult because much of what they found was naturally occurring.
Morrison asked about further supplies of clean drinking water for residents, given the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recommendation against using domestic well water. The delivery of bottled drinking water that some residents have been receiving is scheduled to end in March. Eleven households are on the bottled water delivery program, while just over thirty are enrolled in a cistern construction program created by the state legislature in 2012. It was unclear at the meeting how much longer the cistern program will last.
Responding to Morrison’s question, Parfitt did not remark on the future of the bottled drinking water service, but he said that to date $930,000 had been spent on the cistern program. Supplying the cisterns comes from a $400,000 slice of $1.5 million that Encana provided the state in 2013 to help pay for the Pavillion investigation. Once that money runs out, residents will be left paying to fill the cisterns themselves, or could try asking the legislature or Governor’s office to extend the program. In a phone interview, Jeff Locker estimated that money could last two or four years, and said he and other residents will push for a longer-term solution: which could be either a central deeply drilled well in their area, or a pipeline that runs from the town’s water supply.
The meeting continued with further questions from Fenton and Locker about how the investigation was conducted, and where it would go from here. For many of the questions, either Parfitt or other officials answered by saying more work would be done.
Afterward, Morrison said the impromptu public comment session was not coordinated by the group, but she was glad it happened. “We need to have a public conversation so people can hear what the concerns are and the way they answered them publicly,” she said. She said that she is worried about the state finding funding for the additional investigative work recommended in the report, and wondered if Encana would commit to paying for more studies.
Fenton said the meeting had shown an incongruence in the state’s stance. “Publicly they seem to claim they know a lot and they’ve exonerated fracking and point the finger at bacteria, but in here they say they have more to do,” he said.
Parfitt told WyoFile the report’s goal had been in part to recommend further action. “This doesn’t end our involvement here. This is just the conclusion of a step in the process,” he said.
In response to a question about how he envisioned the DEQ assuaging the doubts of concerned residents, Parfitt said he believes the further investigative work will help.
“We have no preconceived notion or predetermined outcome of this,” he said. “In order to tackle the issue we need to know what it is, and so that’s our objective is just to find answers.”
He said he hoped that the night’s meeting had furthered that goal.
“I thought it was a good discussion,” he said. “I thought some of the landowners brought up some good points.”