Tainted drinking water key in community fights against energy companies

As EPA studies inch toward linking hydraulic fracturing and tainted water, community members hope the findings will stop permissive drilling practices.

On Nov. 9, the EPA announced it detected 2-Butoxyethanol in well water throughout the town of Pavillion, Wyo. The solvent is commonly used in fracking fluids. Moving with the deliberation of a federal agency, the EPA has not yet said if the contamination can be traced to natural gas wells around the town. The agency is sharing only a written statement with the media now, said Richard Mylott, public affairs specialist with EPA Region 8. The statement reads in part:

“Our scientists are continuing to complete their analysis of those data and we are working hard to complete a report interpreting the findings in the near future. In the next weeks, we hope to hear from community, the tribes, the State and Encana about their initial thoughts on the data. Meanwhile, we will finalize the report and share it with the Pavillion community and the public soon.”

But long-time resident Louis Meeks doesn’t need more interpretation to tell him EnCana ruined his water. The company has operated natural gas wells within yards of his property for years.

“My water just reeks of production water,” Meeks said.

Though Meeks believes the chemicals have made him and his wife sick, the latest reports are good news, by his estimation.

“I think this is the start of something. I think this is the start of people looking into this,” Meeks said. The 61-year-old was a founding member of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens. The group educates Freemont County residents about oil and gas production and helps them advocate for themselves.

Similar groups have started around the United States in communities where hydraulic fracturing is commonplace.

Still, EnCana and other energy companies continue to claim there is no proven link between fracking nd contaminated ground water. The EPA is considering several sources besides gas wells that might have fouled the water, including run-off from farming, septic tanks and natural causes. A full analysis of the recently announced test results is expected in a few weeks, Mylott said.

Pavillion is a small town, as Meeks describes it, with a high school, a grade school, “a bar, a supper club and another bar.” As in much of Wyoming, oil and natural gas are big business here. An EPA map shows an area heavily speckled with oil and natural gas wells.

Meeks and his wife first worried about their drinking water after a friend came to visit.

“They said, ‘Man, you’d better look into your water because it reeks of gas,” Meeks said. The family no longer noticed the taste or smell. In fact, Meeks said his wife’s senses of taste and smell have been damaged permanently by chemicals in their water.

Families in the area drink and cook with water that has been trucked in, Meeks said. He doesn’t even like to bathe in the well water. Although EnCana denies responsibility, they do pay for some of the cistern water, according to EPA press releases.

If water contamination is firmly linked to energy companies, residents and activists worldwide will have another weapon to fight fracking and other harmful drilling practices, Meeks said.  Landowners may get help rehabilitating land that is now largely useless.

“It’s not just happening here, it’s happening all over the United States - not just the U.S.,  all over the world,” Meeks said. “We already know what happened here.” 

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Leslie Wilber is a journalist who has covered police misconduct, courts, high school sports and other disasterous things. She lives in Denver and is an editor at The Precarious.

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