Wyoming town fears fracking poisoned their water

Print
Email
|

by JIM DOUGLAS

Bio | Email | Follow: @wfaajdouglas

WFAA

Posted on February 10, 2012 at 12:19 AM

PAVILION, Wyo. - On the mountainous Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming, cattle grazing in a valley share space with more than a hundred gas wells.

Pumps puff and click, like alarm clocks for long-time farmers and ranchers who wait for their Thursday deliveries from the Big Horn water truck.

The driver stacks up pyramids of five-gallon bottles at 19 stops. Encana Corporation, an energy company, provides the water.

It's the only way disabled veteran Louis Meeks can stay on the land he bought back in the 1970's, when his water wells pumped sweet life into the place.

No more. It gives off a pungent, petroleum smell.

The EPA told Meeks and other families not to drink it, and to ventilate bathrooms while showering. Meeks says Wyoming's governor recoiled when he got a whiff a few days before News 8's visit. Meeks thinks the water killed some of his chickens. He's afraid to let his granddaughter near it, or even wash her clothes in it.

His neighbor, Jeff Locker, says doctors as far away as Denver have been unable diagnose his wife's strange illness.

"My wife got really sick six years ago," Locker said. "Extreme neuropathy. She describes it as someone sticking knives through her shin bones."

The EPA found high levels of toxic contaminants in a monitoring well just yards from Locker's own water well.

He pulls out a blackened filter from his waterline. "This has been in about a week," he said.

The EPA says chemicals in the monitoring wells are consistent with fracking fluids. But the study has yet to undergo peer review, and the drilling company strongly refutes the EPA's conclusions and methodology.

For many residents, though, the EPA tests confirm their worst fears, and vindicate years of requests for a government investigation.

John Fenton looks out from his cabin porch above pastures dotted with black cattle, and 24 gas wells. He says bad water has ruined his property value.

The mineral rights belong to the Shashone and Arapaho tribes who were here first, so residents get only a small share of revenue. For farmers and ranchers like Fenton and the others, their land is their life and their retirement.

"It proves a point," Fenton said. "We're being damaged. We're being destroyed out here."

Louis Meeks, Jeff Locker and John Fenton say they grew up on this rugged land and love the lifestyle. Perhaps surprisingly, all three men insist they still support gas drilling.

But they say there was too much, too fast, with too little government oversight. They think mistakes were made.

As proof, Louis Meeks offers home video of a blowout. He hit gas about 400 feet down while drilling for water in his backyard.

When crews capped it, Meeks says production on a nearby gas well tripled.

"That tells you they got problems out here," said Meeks, who has also worked in the oil fields. "Big problems, because everything is intermingled."

The drilling company and other experts say Meeks likely hit gas because gas is so close to the surface in this part of Wyoming.

Just the opposite of what we have in the Barnett Shale.

"If we had that here, we'd have a lot more problems, as they do in Pavilion," said TCU geologist Ken Morgan.

He says there's little chance of contamination in the Texas Barnett Shale, because the gas is a mile below the aquifer, separated by impermeable rock.

Morgan points out that 1.4 million gas wells have been drilled nationwide.

"14,000 just in the Fort Worth area," he said. "And we've had very, very few documented and proven cases of contamination of surface water."

UTA Hydro-geologist Max Hu also downplays the threat, but adds it could take decades for a problem to show up, and for an aquifer to purge the pollution.

"It could take decades," said Hu, who is conducting his own study on fracking.

He said monitoring wells are a necessary safeguard.

The EPA monitoring wells in Wyoming are actually several miles east and downstream from the minuscule town of Pavilion, which has a population of about 200 people. Water from city wells is still safe.

But residents say fear and media attention do their own damage.

"It's killed me. It's really, really hurt me," said Ginny Warren, standing behind the rustic, wooden bar in Miss Ginny's Roost.

Warren owns and runs Pavilion's only restaurant. She's a Katrina refugee from Mississippi.

"I don't ever want to lose everything all over again," she said. "And that's what I'm looking at here."

Despite vast differences between Wyoming and North Texas, people around Pavilion say there are lessons to be learned. If nothing else, it's a snapshot of what can happen when good life is tainted by bad water and cold fear.

To read the EPA's report and the response from Encana energy, click the links in this sentence, or to the right.

E-mail jdouglas@wfaa.com

Print
Email
|