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'Fracking' fight continues in wake of EPA water contamination finding

PAVILLION, Wyo. — Louis Meeks knows what to expect when he turns on any of the faucets inside the home he bought 36 years ago.

"Still stink?" he asks, after offering up a glass jar filled seconds earlier from the tap.

The cloudy water in the clear jar does stink. It has the distinct odor of gasoline.

But it wasn’t always that way, says the disabled Vietnam vet who lives about five miles outside of Pavillion, a town where there are nearly 200 natural gas wells, but not a single gas station.

The water from Meeks' well was so good at one point that workers would stop by to fill their jugs with it on their way into work at the nearby natural gas plant.

Ask Meeks what happened to the water and the frustration becomes readily apparent.

"Well the first thing I know was in 2004, they drilled a well up here, 500 feet away from my house," he said.

The natural gas well Meeks refers to is owned by EnCana, a Canadian company with U.S. operations in Wyoming, Colorado, Louisiana and Texas. EnCana owns all of the nearly 200 gas wells around Pavillion, several of them on Meeks' property.

Meeks is no fan of the company, which he blames for contaminating his drinking water and the water of many of his neighbors through the use of a controversial technique called hydraulic fracturing.

"We got by without fracking before," said the former oilfield worker. "We gotta do something different, something safer."

Commonly known as "fracking," the practice of hydraulic fracturing involves the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals into the well bore of a newly completed oil or natural gas well. The slurry forms cracks in the subsurface layers allowing energy companies to pump more oil and gas out of the ground.

Originally developed more than 60 years ago, fracking has become more prevalent in the past five years thanks to advances in technology and science. Its use has also become more controversial.

Fracking was the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Gasland" — Meeks' plight was featured in the film — and congressional hearings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also in the middle of a multiyear national study of the issue, slated to be published in 2014. And states like Colorado and Texas passed new rules this week that require energy companies to disclose which chemicals they use in the fracking process.

However, all of those things may have come too late for Meeks and his neighbors. A draft study of possible water contamination released Dec. 8 by the EPA reported that samples from two monitoring wells in the Pavillion gas fields tested positive for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes.

The agency's testing also found gasoline and diesel range organics in both monitoring wells, and evidence that some of EnCana’s gas wells were not built properly.

"The data indicates likely impact to groundwater that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing," the EPA report states.

The agency first took an interest in Pavillion in 2008, four years after Meeks began complaining to Wyoming oil and gas regulators about problems with his water. It drilled two monitoring wells in the area and conducted four rounds of testing before releasing its preliminary findings last week for 45 days of public comment and then an independent scientific review.

EPA officials in the agency's Denver office declined to comment on the draft report, citing a desire not to influence public comment. But EnCana spokesman Doug Hock had plenty to say about the 121-page report.

"We think it causes undue alarm for people when you look at the conclusions, which again are very draft, and you see words like 'likely' and 'maybe,'" Hock said. "You know, that's just not responsible."

EnCana bought the Pavillion field in 2004 and drilled 44 wells in a three-year period. Thirty-three of those wells were recently tested for integrity at the request of Wyoming state regulators, Hock said.

"To date, they've found no problems with any of those wells," he said.

Hock noted that commercial grade natural gas is found at about 1,300 feet below ground in Pavillion, while the average drinking water well goes down 300 feet or less. One of the EPA's sampling wells is 775 feet deep. The other is 900 feet deep.

"Very close to where we find commercial levels of gas," Hock said, referring to the depth of the EPA wells.

"So they found saturated methane. They found benzene. That's not unexpected," he said. "Nature put those there, we didn't."

So what about the pungent smell from Meeks’ well water?

"It's not coming from oil and gas, it's coming from bacteria that creates a biogenic type of gas," Hock said, adding that poor water quality has been an issue in Pavillion dating as far back as the 1880s, according to U.S. Geologic Survey records.

EnCana believes that the EPA’s draft report may have more to do with an anti-fracking agenda than scientific fact, and will not stand up to independent review, Hock said.

"We're a company of engineers and geologists and environmental scientists," he said. "That's what we go back to: What does the science tell us? It's disappointing when politics dilutes the water, so to speak."

The Meeks family — like many of their neighbors — continue to have their drinking water delivered to their homes every two weeks. It comes in 15 five-gallon bottles, paid for by a state rural water association fund to which Encana and other private donors contribute.

"Sometimes I just want to go out there and run my head into a tree," Meeks said, expressing his frustration over what's happened in Pavillion.

"Who would want to live here?" he said.

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