Journalism in the Public Interest

EPA: Chemicals Found in Wyo. Drinking Water Might Be From Fracking

Louis Meeks’ well water contains methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper, according to the EPA’s test results. When he drilled a new water well, it also showed contaminants. The drilling company Encana is supplying Meeks with drinking water.  (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)
Federal environment officials investigating drinking water contamination near the ranching town of Pavillion, Wyo., have found that at least three water wells contain a chemical used in the natural gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing. Scientists also found traces of other contaminants, including oil, gas or metals, in 11 of 39 wells tested there since March.

The study, which is being conducted under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program, is the first time the EPA has undertaken its own water analysis in response to complaints of contamination in drilling areas, and it could be pivotal in the national debate over the role of natural gas in America’s energy policy.

Abundant gas reserves are being aggressively developed in 31 states, including New York and Pennsylvania. Congress is mulling a bill that aims to protect those water resources from hydraulic fracturing, the process in which fluids and sand are injected under high pressure to break up rock and release gas. But the industry says environmental regulation is unnecessary because it is impossible for fracturing fluids to reach underground water supplies and no such case has ever been proven.

Scientists in Wyoming will continue testing this fall to determine the level of chemicals in the water and exactly where they came from. If they find that the contamination did result from drilling, the placid plains arching up to the Wind River Range would become the first site where fracturing fluids have been scientifically linked to groundwater contamination.

In interviews with ProPublica and at a public meeting this month in Pavillion’s community hall, officials spoke cautiously about their preliminary findings. They were careful to say they’re investigating a broad array of sources for the contamination, including agricultural activity. They said the contaminant causing the most concern – a compound called 2-butoxyethanol, known as 2-BE  – can be found in some common household cleaners, not just in fracturing fluids.  

But those same EPA officials also said they had found no pesticides – a signature of agricultural contamination – and no indication that any industry or activity besides drilling could be to blame. Other than farming, there is no industry in the immediate area.

Pavillion, Wyoming In Pavillion, a town of about 160 people in the heart of the Wind River Indian Reservation, the gas wells are crowded close together in an ecologically vivid area packed with large wetlands and home to 10 threatened or endangered species. Beneath the ground, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the earth is a complex system of folded crusts containing at least 30 water-bearing aquifer layers.

EPA officials told residents that some of the substances found in their water may have been poured down a sink drain. But according to EPA investigation documents, most of the water wells were flushed three times before they were tested in order to rid them of anything that wasn’t flowing through the aquifer itself. That means the contaminants found in Pavillion would have had to work their way from a sink not only into the well but deep into the aquifer at significant concentrations in order to be detected. An independent drinking water expert with decades of experience in central Wyoming, Doyle Ward, dismissed such an explanation as "less than a one in a million" chance.

Some of the EPA’s most cautious scientists are beginning to agree.

"It starts to finger-point stronger and stronger to the source being somehow related to the gas development, including, but not necessarily conclusively, hydraulic fracturing itself," said Nathan Wiser, an EPA scientist and hydraulic fracturing expert who oversees enforcement for the underground injection control program under the Safe Drinking Water Act in the Rocky Mountain region. The investigation "could certainly have a focusing effect on a lot of folks in the Pavillion area as a nexus between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination."

Tanks hold natural gas condensate and mark the spot of producing gas wells in the Pavillion field, in Fremont County, Wyo., in the heart of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The Environmental Protection Agency has found chemicals that are used in gas drilling in water wells near this site.  (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica) The Superfund investigation follows a series of complaints by residents in the Pavillion area, some stemming back 15 years, that their water wells turned sour and reeked of fuel vapors shortly after drilling took place nearby. Several of those residents shared their stories with ProPublica, while other information was found through court and local records. Several years ago, one resident’s animals went blind and died after drinking from a well. In two current cases, a resident’s well water shows small pooling oil slicks on the surface, and a woman is coping with a mysterious nervous system disorder: Her family blames arsenic and metals found in her water. In two of those cases, the Canadian drilling company EnCana, which bought most of the area’s wells after they were drilled and assumed liability for them, is either supplying fresh drinking water to the residents or has purchased the land. In the third case, a drilling company bought by EnCana, Tom Brown Inc., had previously reached an out-of-court settlement to provide water filtering.

Though the drilling companies have repeatedly compensated residents with the worst cases of contamination, they have not acknowledged any fault in causing the pollution. An EnCana spokesman, Doug Hock, told ProPublica the company wants "to better understand the science and the source of the compounds" found in the water near Pavillion before he would speculate on whether the company was responsible. 

Precise details about the nature and cause of the contamination, as well as the extent of the plume running in the aquifer beneath this region 150 miles east of Jackson Hole, have been difficult for scientists to collect. That’s in part because the identity of the chemicals used by the gas industry for drilling and fracturing are protected as trade secrets, and because the EPA, based on an exemption passed under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, does not have authority to investigate the fracturing process under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Using the Superfund program gave the agency extra authority to investigate the Pavillion reports, including the right to subpoena the secret information if it needs to. It also unlocked funding to pay for the research.

John Fenton’s drinking water appeared to be perfect, until the EPA found it contained methane and contaminants associated with plastics. Fenton is president of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens.  (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica) EPA officials have repeatedly said that disclosure of the fluids used in fracking – something that would be required if the bill being debated in Congress were passed – would enable them to investigate contamination incidents faster, more conclusively and for less money. The current study, which is expected to end next spring, has already cost $130,000.

About 65 people, many in jeans, boots and 10-gallon hats, filled Pavillion’s community hall on Aug. 11 to hear the EPA’s findings. They were told that a range of contaminants, including arsenic, copper, vanadium and methane gas were found in the water. Many of these substances are found in various fluids used at drilling sites.

Of particular concern were compounds called adamantanes, a natural hydrocarbon found in gas that can be used to fingerprint its origin, and 2-BE, listed as a common fracturing fluid in the EPA’s 2004 research report on hydraulic fracturing. That compound, which EPA scientists in Wyoming said they identified with 97 percent certainty, was suspected by some environmental groups in a 2004 drilling-related contamination case in Colorado, also involving EnCana. 

EPA investigators explained that because they had no idea what to test for, they were relegated to an exhaustive process of scanning water samples for spikes in unidentified compounds and then running those compounds like fingerprints through a criminal database for matches against a vast library of unregulated and understudied substances. That is how they found the adamantanes and 2-BE.

An EnCana representative told the crowd that the company was as concerned about the contamination as the residents were, and pledged to help the EPA in its investigation.

Some people seemed confounded by what they were hearing.

"How in god’s name can the oil industry dump sh*t in our drinking water and not tell us what it is?" shouted Alan Hofer, who lives near the center of the sites being investigated by the EPA.

"If they’d tell us what they were using then you could go out and test for things and it would make it a lot easier, right?" asked Jim Van Dorn, who represents Wyoming Rural Water, a nonprofit that advises utilities and private well owners on water management.

"Exactly," said Luke Chavez, the EPA’s chief Superfund investigator on the project. "That’s our idea too."

Now that the EPA has found a chemical used in fracturing fluids in Pavillion’s drinking water, Chavez said the next step in the research is to ask EnCana for a list of the chemicals it uses and then do more sampling using that list. (An EnCana spokesman told ProPublica the company will supply any information that the EPA requires.) The EPA is also working with area health departments, a toxicologist and a representative from the Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to assess health risks, he said. 

Depending on what they find, the investigation in Wyoming could have broad implications. Before hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, the EPA assessed the process and concluded it did not pose a threat to drinking water. That study, however, did not involve field research or water testing and has been criticized as incomplete. This spring, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson called some of the contamination reports "startling" and told members of Congress that it is time to take another look. The Pavillion investigation, according to Chavez, is just that.

"If there is a problem, maybe we don’t have the tools, or the laws, to deal with it," Chavez said. "That’s one of the things that could come out of this process."

If you read the EPA’s 46 page public release of information you will find on page 20 something the following quote:

“Many activities in gas well drilling, hydraulic fracturing and work- over’s involve injecting water and other fluids into the well and have the potential to create cross-contamination of aquifers.”

Well, duh! We’ve known that for quite a while now.

colorado frank

Aug. 25, 2009, 5:37 p.m.

Wow—thanks, Abrahm for bringing this story! 

And to think industry claims their chemicals are safe, politicians are embracing natural gas within domestic energy policy, and industry still holds numerous exemptions to public health and environmental protections.

If the DC decision-makers are encouraging more natural gas development—in closer proximity to people—then let’s repeal these industry exemptions…starting with regulating fraccing under the Safe Drinking Water Act!

I live about 30 miles from Pavillion—as the crow flies—and like most of Wyoming, it’s politically a very red area.  Noting from the article that the hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, I have three comments:

1.  Many good folks tried to fight this change but got the ho-hum treatment in the face of the industry lobbying.  I don’t recall any opposition from those whose water in now affected.

2.  Drinking-water contamination is hardly the only problem with insensitive drilling.  The damage to range land from coal-bed methane production is overwhelming, yet those ranchers go right on calling environmentalist “dirty liberals.”

3. Despite the fact that this exemption happened at the behest of the Bush Administration, few in Wyoming will see this as the fault of the industry-friendly Republicans.  They will go right on electing that ilk, I’m sorry to say.  I’d sure like to be wrong.

If you read the EPS’s public release of information which is about 47 pages, you will find this quote on page 20 something:

“Many activities in gas well drilling, hydraulic fracturing and work- over’s involve injecting water and other fluids into the well and have the potential to create cross-contamination of aquifers.”

It seems they are finally catching on to what we’ve known for a long time.

sajida parveen

Aug. 27, 2009, 1:01 a.m.

Hay, thanks for bringing this story: 
Also thanks to consider industry claims their chemicals are safe, politicians are embracing natural gas surrounded by familial energy strategy, and industry still holds numerous exceptions to public health and ecological safeties.
If the DC decision-makers are cheering more natural gas growth, in closer nearness to people, then let’s repeal these industry exceptions, starting with regulating fraccing under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

While your story is interesting, one element is missing: what in blazes if “fracking”?  It would be nice if you actually defined it.

As a resident of NYS waiting for the SGEIS to finally come out, I am deeply concerned and alarmed by both the reality of the danger of horizontal drilling and the chemicals involved, but more so by the DEC’s (who i believed was here to protect the environment and citizens) reaction.  Mr. Grannis, head of DEC recently wrote a letter dated August 4 to Assemblyman McGee, in which he claims that drilling has been hydrofracking “going on for years” therefore it is safe.  Well, didn’t we begin this argument over 1 year ago based on the FACT that horizontal drilling is a completely different drilling technique than vertical drilling, one that involves introducing toxic chemicals in the earth, UNLIKE vertical drilling.  What has this entire year of study brought us if the result is pure cover up?  (I would be glad to forward the letter).

Steve, he has defined fracking so many times before. Look in the left-hand column at all the articles.

Hydraulic fracturing - Using great pressure to inject millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals down a drilling hole to fracture or break up the shale so the gas trapped within can flow up to the wellhead.

There is a slideshow in the left column.

Marilyn: Didn’t we go through this same thing with the tobacco industry? I recall their claims for decades that cigarette smoking is perfectly safe and there is no proof that cigarette smoking causes cancer.  People have been smoking for decades. I wonder how many have died?

Déjà Vu

Blake Barnett

Sep. 3, 2009, 10:50 a.m.

Yes indeed, everything and everyone is so informative. I just had to sign up and comment on a job well done.  I heard about propublica on Democracy Now!
Something tells me only 2 or 3 companies make the majority of well heads, and/or they use the same basic design and construction. I think it’s time for a better mouse trap. The gas industry for years has been saying “don’t hate the player, hate the game”. Not fair, because this game is played with blood money lobbyists!
Geologically speaking, “fracking” can be mitigated back to it’s end product [the metamorphosis of gas energy to Co2 foot print] without contaminating our ground water! Gee-whiz “frackers”, our fresh water has enough to contend with already!!
PS, thanks, I will checkout your site later.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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