Fracking the Wind River Country
Jeff and Rhonda Locker’s water changed abruptly one day in the mid-1990s while Rhonda was doing the laundry. A Denver-based gas company was working over an old well in back of their house, when the wash water turned black. “It happened just like that,” Jeff Locker says. “I stopped him and asked him what he did to our water, and of course he didn’t do anything to our water… It’s been bad ever since.”
Donna Meeks’ well water was so good, she used to haul it to town for the school office coffee pot. Neither she nor her husband Louis noticed anything wrong until her co-workers stopped drinking the coffee; it was 2004, and a Canadian company, EnCana, had just drilled a new well about 500 feet from the Meeks home. Some visiting friends later said they noticed the water tasted and smelled like gas, but didn’t want to be rude by saying anything about it.
John and Cathy Fenton had no reason to suspect there was anything wrong with their water—it tasted fine. But just to be neighborly, they went along with the Lockers, the Meeks, and other Pavillion-area residents when the Environmental Protection Agency came in 2009 for an initial round of testing. That’s when they found out that their family had been drinking water laced with methane. Follow-up tests a year later found a whole soup’s worth of semi-volatile organic compounds in the family’s stock well.
There’s something karmic about the possibility that Pavillion, Wyoming, might be the first community to prove its water damaged by natural gas production. While water literally is life everywhere in the arid West, here it’s the epicenter for deep social and political divisions.
Pavillion sits exposed to the wind and weather on the rolling high plains of the Wind River Valley’s northern flank. The town boasts two bars, two restaurants, one grocery, and serves as a social center for the community of farms and ranches that populate the Midvale irrigation district. It’s the schools—practically brand new—that bring people together here, says Jeff Locker, who sits on the school board. “Even retired people come to the ball games,” he says. By ball, Locker means basketball because this is a reservation town.
Louis Meeks lost two horses within a few days of each other: one was 24 years old, the other six–his daughter’s barrel racing horse. He suspects they drank contaminated water, but was unable to convince the local veterinarian to do autopsies. "There’s people who just don’t want to get involved," he says. "That’s when I was fighting it by myself." (Photo by ANDREA PEACOCK)
The Eastern Shoshone chose the oblong-shaped valley as their home in 1868 for its relatively temperate winter weather. They were joined here nine years later by the Northern Arapaho, when the Great White Father in his infinite wisdom decided the traditional enemies ought to live together.
The Bureau of Reclamation proclaimed in the early 1900s the Indians weren’t using their land to its fullest potential, so the feds opened up the reservation to homesteaders who settled the north side of the Wind River, with native communities concentrated on the south side. Rich with scenery and poor in industry, the towns all are small, none with more than a few traffic lights.
The Anglos immediately started digging ditches (Midvale being the largest) and diverting water for flood irrigation, decimating fisheries and essentially turning the Wind River into a slough at certain times of the year. The tribes fought back, as chronicled in Geoffrey O’Gara’s book What You See In Clear Water, eventually winning a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that the water was theirs to allocate, but the state declined to enforce the ruling and the reservation communities still simmer with bitterness over this injustice.
Water also links everyone—lakes and creeks from both the Anglo and Indian sides of the reservation empty into the Wind, connecting towns from Dubois at the far western end of the valley, 80 miles downstream to Riverton. What biologists call the nation’s charismatic megafauna populate the mountains that ring and define the basin: grizzlies and wolves, moose and lion haunt the Owl Creek, Wind River, Absaroka, and Granite ranges.
Now, Pavillion area farmers and ranchers have learned that this water they fought so hard to control is—in places—undrinkable.
Louis Meeks has a schtick for visitors. He fills up a mason jar full of tap water, swirls it around, then offers it up. The dizzying fetor of gasoline is unmistakable. “Would you drink that?” he asks, his voice full of frustration. When Meeks started his family after returning from Vietnam more than 40 years ago, they lived in town, in a trailer. He worked the oil fields, which was good money, but not the kind of life he wanted for his kids. “When we first bought it, we only bought that house and three acres,” he says. “Then we added another eight, and then the 40 across the road.
“I wanted my kids to rodeo and stuff like that. I’ve always loved to garden and live in the country. Even now we’ve got a little bunch of chickens, we raise our own lamb and our own beef… We’ve got apple trees, a couple pear trees out there. We’ve got plum trees and cherry trees. So you know, it was a pretty nice place.”
The Meeks kids are grown now, but Louis and Donna are not relaxing into retirement. Instead, they find themselves shuttling between town and the farm, alternatively choosing between their home and their health. Louis was diagnosed with neuropathy and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and Donna has endured eight operations for polyps in her lungs. Donna moved in with their daughter for a while, then back with Louis, because she didn’t want him out there all by himself. The federal government has warned the Meeks and their neighbors to vent their bathrooms while showering, and avoid open flames and running water in the same room due to the danger of explosion from methane in their drinking water. The Meeks family heats with a propane boiler and pellet stove; these warnings effectively render their home uninhabitable in the winter.
Louis helps out his daughter by picking his seven-year-old granddaughter up after school. He serves her dinner on paper plates—afraid to feed her from dishes washed with tap water—and won’t let her bathe at the farm. “What are they going to do if me and my granddaughter and my wife are here and this house blows up and kills us all?” he says. “Isn’t anybody going to feel bad about it?”
Just a couple years ago, the dynamics of energy development in the United States changed dramatically. Where a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey inventory of oil and gas resources had predicted we would exhaust our undiscovered onshore federal natural gas reserves of roughly 200 trillion cubic feet in 50 years, more or less, industry researchers announced later that year that by combining two technologies—hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling—some companies had been able to wrest gas from shale in Pennsylvania and Texas. This innovation exploded established estimates, with more than 500 trillion cubic feet possibly lying trapped in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale alone; theoretically, this success could be reproduced in shale formations all over the country.
Hydraulic fracturing has been around for more than 100 years, but is nonetheless a marvel of human ingenuity. Basically it involves leaving perforations in the cement casing that lines an oil or gas well, pumping water, sand and a variety of chemicals into the well through these holes at such high pressures that the surrounding rock cracks and releases whatever fossil fuel treasures it holds. Some of the liquids and chemicals used in the process are recovered—often much is not.
A 2004 EPA study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater in coalbed methane deposits found that a third of fracturing fluids are expected to get left behind, and that these “will likely be transported by groundwater flowing according to regional hydraulic gradients.” There are more than 30 water-bearing formations lying under the Wind River Valley; according to the USGS, a lot of intermingling goes on down there.
But EnCana is skeptical. A spokesman from America’s largest natural gas producer and owner of the Pavillion area fields declined an interview, but answered questions in writing. Randy Teeuwen explains that the weight of the overlying rock keeps fracking chemicals from mixing with other zones. “It’s based on the law of physics,” he writes. “The volume of fluids required to create a fracture from several thousand feet below the surface that would push through layers of solid rock to a domestic well several hundred feet below the surface is significantly greater by an order of magnitude than any fracture operations ever employed in Pavillion.”
The state of Wyoming has the strictest fracking disclosure requirements in the nation. Tom Doll, of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (the state permitting and watchdog agency), says he believes that despite whatever happened in the past, Wyoming’s current layers of rules make contamination unlikely. “As part of their plan… they have to run their surface casing at least 120 feet deeper than the deepest permitted water supply well,” he says. “They have to identify to us any groundwaters that they might drill through… And then when they do the well stimulation, they have to provide us with the estimated pressures and the estimate height of the frack and the length of the frack as part of their plan.” Wyoming also now requires companies to divulge the kinds and amounts of chemicals they frack with—the first state to do so. If all that information comes together, Doll says, it becomes “easy to prove” that contamination hasn’t happened.
While the EPA is now conducting a study about the effects of fracking chemicals on people’s drinking water (with a initial results due out by the end of 2012), fracking was exempted from the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act in President Bush’s landmark 2005 Energy Policy Act (this exemption is often referred to as the Halliburton Loophole), and regulation was left to the states.
But as the U.S. ramped up its domestic onshore exploration and production, disturbing reports began leaking out of Pavillion and the rest of the country’s gas fields. In the documentary Gasland, Americans were treated to footage of people lighting their tap water on fire, ostensibly because of contamination from hydraulic fracturing. People repeated the refrain to journalists from the nonprofit ProPublica and anyone else who would listen: Our water was good and now it’s bad. But they had no baseline data, which allowed industry executives to appear before a Congressional committee in 2009 and deny any connection, correctly pointing out that no one has proved such a link. Not anywhere. Not ever.
Gas-related water pollution has turned farmer John Fenton into a reluctant activist. "I’ve met with people from all over the country. You might be in a different state, it might look different, the people might have a different accent, but the stories are the same… I just don’t know when people are going to realize that you can’t drink dirty water and you can’t breathe dirty air. And once that stuff is messed up, it may never be fixable." (Photo credit: ANDREA PEACOCK)
The state capital in Cheyenne is called the People’s House. Like a lot of Western legislatures, it is populated by part-time representatives who travel here for 40 day sessions every other year. They used to wear Carhartt and cowboy hats at their real jobs, but the gas boom in Wyoming has changed all that. “Now it’s filled with suits,” Jeff Locker says. “It’s different.”
Which could account for Louis Meeks’ frustration as he tried to get someone to help him with his water. He called EnCana, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the state Department of Environmental Quality. In 2005, Meeks decided to just drill himself a new water well. At 240 feet, it exploded. “They figured it was making two million cubic feet of gas,” he says. The DEQ asked EnCana to test the Meeks water repeatedly, at least eleven times in between 2004 and 2007. The results always came back clean. The governor’s office finally asked Meeks not to call any more.
At the same time, Meeks’ neighbors were struggling as well. Rhonda Locker’s neuropathy was crippling. “When it first started, she described it has someone driving, running a knife through her bones in her legs,” her husband Jeff says.
She went to the University of Denver for toxicological tests, but was told that unless they knew what to look for, “well, there’s so many tests and they’re so expensive that you can’t do it.” The toxicologist told the Lockers the chemicals that might have precipitated her illness had probably not lingered long enough to be identified. “The damage is there, but the evidence is gone,” Jeff says. “And sometimes I wonder if we still should be living there, but I don’t know. That’s our home.”
Even if the Lockers decided to leave, they’d have an awfully hard time finding a buyer for their house. In 2009, John and Cathy Fenton pushed the issue with the county appraiser’s office, protesting their property tax valuation on seven different grounds related to the impacts of oil and gas. As a result, nine Paradox-area families have had their taxes reduced—and their home values cut in half.
In the meantime, Meeks ran out of patience with the state of Wyoming. In 2008, he got through to the regional EPA in Denver. By early 2009, the feds were on the scene.
The EPA narrowed their focus to domestic water wells within a four-mile radius of a gas well pad just north and west of the Meeks house, affecting the drinking water of an estimated 123 people. They flushed each water well three times its volume to ensure they were getting at the groundwater itself. Then they tested for a whole range of chemicals not commonly included in water analyses, and looked for contaminants at levels far below public health standards (though many of these constituents, EPA project director Greg Oberley says, are so uncommon there are no health standards for them).
They found two so-called “contaminants of concern” in six wells: two forms of a volatile organic compound called adamantane, and 2-butoxyethanol (2-BE), a solvent that is used in fracking foaming agents, and is suspected of causing a whole range of ailments, from cancer to respiratory issues to nervous system problems. And the EPA found methane in eight wells. Investigators began referring to the contamination as a plume.
The second round of tests in 2010 confirmed the initial contaminants, and as well found petroleum compounds in 17 out of 19 water wells tested. The EPA sank three monitoring wells that caught more petroleum compounds—benzene, xylene and naphthalene; a component of jet fuel called methylcyclohexane; and phenol, which is used to make resin-coated sand for fracking—in the groundwater itself.
Fracking could have polluted the water, the EPA says, but so could have any of the 32 reserve pits lying around the field, used by gas companies over the years to temporarily store mud and liquids from the drilling and production process. EnCana has entered three of these pits into the state’s voluntary remediation program.
A third possibility would be the gas wells themselves. According to Tom Doll, of the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, there are several which have caught regulators’ eyes as possibly having poor structural integrity.
One of the chemicals found—2-BE—is an ingredient in household cleaners. EnCana—which acquired the fields in 2004 when it bought out the Denver-based Tom Brown company—is quick to offer these and other alternatives, though the idea leaves locals like Jeff Locker wondering how many gallons of Simple Green he would have had to pour down his 460-foot well for it to have shown up on EPA tests after all the purging.
Without any other kind of major industry anywhere near this rural landscape, the list of culprits is short. The EPA’s Greg Oberley says methane has a fingerprint which can be analyzed and linked—or not—to the gas EnCana has been producing.
EnCana spokesperson Randy Teeuwen points out that the groundwater in the Wind River Basin historically has been marginal, with high levels of salt, sulfate and total dissolved solids. Teeuwen notes as well that derivatives of adamantanes are used in vaccines and hydraulic fluid, and 2-BE can come from rubber gaskets and washers. “In all cases,” he writes, “we don’t believe these compounds are associated with oil and gas.”
John Fenton can tick off all the usual ways oil and gas affects rural people: it’s noisy and smelly; workers treat locals like they’re the intruders; he has a heck of a time irrigating around the equipment and well pads; the gas companies take shortcuts around the rules, while government inspectors might as well be invisible. And his family’s health is at risk.
His wife’s parents bought this farm 40 years ago, and the Fentons moved in next door to live a different kind of life. He had been working as welder for the gas companies, and while he makes it clear he begrudges no one their choice of jobs, the work left a bad taste in his mouth.
“We were making $50 an hour and we could work all the hours we could work. We’d make in a month what we make in a year now” he says. “But I felt like a hypocrite because I was already starting to see what was going on. And we just decided that… we’d rather be poor and have a clean conscience.”
Now there are four generations living on the property, including John and Cathy’s baby granddaughter. Cathy and her mother have both lost their sense of taste and smell. Their youngest son developed epilepsy after the move to the farm. And John’s got headaches and chronic fatigue that only went away once when he left to spend a week in the clean environment of Washington, D.C.
“This should be as clean as it gets,” he says, gesturing at the view of the valley and mountains outside their picture window. “There’s no way to tell how it was caused, but it sure is a hell of a coincidence.”
Like a lot of folks who live in the gas patches of America, Fenton understands the big picture better than the average American. The true cost of this so-called clean energy, he says, is paid for by workers with their health as well as by families like his. Wyoming has the worst job-related fatality record in the nation, and much of that is due to the oil and gas fields. To make matters worse, he reads that companies are building liquefied petroleum ports in Oregon and the Gulf Coast. “They can get people all riled up and say, ‘We’ve got to get rid of the Arab oil so we can be independent,’ and in the meantime they’re making plans to ship it overseas so they can make more money off it.
“It’s false patriotism, the biggest hypocrisy in the world.”
Which leaves him wondering what to do for his family. “The problem is that this is not really just a job, you know. It’s a whole lifestyle when you live like this,” he says. “You want to hold out and prove that they can’t destroy your way of life, but then you question, is it worth it? If you’re damaging yourself, or your children, your future, is it worth fighting the fight? Because after all, it is just a piece of land.”
This work is supported by the Alicia Patterson Foundation (Washington, DC), founded in 1965 to promote independent journalism.