Fracking lessons

What Boulder County and the rest of gasland can learn from Pavillion's decade-long fight


The water in the town of Pavillion, Wyo., has not been contaminated by the fracking that is taking place a few miles east of town.

There, I have now fulfilled the promise I made to Miss Ginny at some point during the third or fourth beer I was having at her bar a few weeks back. Miss Ginny is Ginny Warren, a Hurricane Katrina refugee who got blown all the way to Pavillion. She did take a few short detours in her life on her way from the Gulf of Mexico to this speck of a town in the middle of the Wind River Indian Reservation, but this is where she finally took root when the winds stopped blowing.

I told her I would begin this article with that particular statement about Pavillion water for a couple of reasons; one, it’s true, and two, even though she makes some of the best Cajun food I‘ve had outside of New Orleans, Miss Ginny’s Roost, as her place is called, will likely be forced to close down in the not-too-distant future if somebody doesn’t start letting people know that the water in town is safe to drink.

Other businesses have already succumbed to the area’s growing international reputation as ground zero in the fracking wars, and the old town center is pretty much a ghost town at this point. The locals are mad about it, but they can’t seem to agree on whose fault it is. Some say it’s the gas company, Encana, but a growing number are blaming their neighbors, more particularly, the local ranch families who keep telling journalists and the rest of the world that they’re sick from the toxic fracking chemicals in their water and air.

Miss Ginny tells me about the town’s tough times as she refills my water glass for the umpteenth time. I keep draining it out of journalistic guilt, not thirst; the Rolling Rock tastes better. I say guilt because she tells me that most of her problems are being caused by reporters like me who are making people too afraid to drive out from Lander and Riverton to eat at the Roost like they used to. “Every reporter who comes here,” she says, “takes a picture of that ‘Welcome to Pavillion’ sign and then starts talking about fracking and contamination and people getting sick.”

I agree it’s not much of a Chamber of Commerce slogan, but I ordered another beer before I confessed that I had taken the exact same “Welcome to Pavillion” photo only a few hours earlier. Fortunately, she just laughed when I told her, which is always a good thing when coming from a woman wearing an apron bearing a picture of an AK-47 assault rifle and who has easy access to kitchen knives.

Like several of the folks I spoke with at the bar that night and others whom I’d met just walking around town, Miss Ginny is starting to blame her neighbors who live a few miles to the east for the town’s problems. She has gone so far as to begin organizing a group of locals to oppose the claims being made by the ranchers who say they’ve been poisoned by fracking. Her new group doesn’t have a name yet but she says it will likely be something that includes the words “truth” and “Pavillion.”

“Truth,” because Miss Ginny says that all the talk of fracking and people getting sick is exaggerated, a ploy, she suspects, by a few loudmouths out to get a big financial settlement from Encana or maybe the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes that own the mineral rights under the gas wells.

“They just want to get bought out,” she says.

I spent the next day with Louis Meeks, one of those “loudmouths” Miss Ginny blames for scaring people away from her restaurant. Louis and his wife Donna live in the middle of the Muddy Ridge gas field about six miles from the Roost by dirt road. They have a nondescript white frame house in a very descript place. The couple’s land on the valley floor, with its plum and apple trees, offers views of the Wind River, Owl and Big Horn mountain ranges. It’s easy to see why the 62-year-old Vietnam vet chose this spot 35 years ago to call home, and why he’s now willing to fight to the death to keep it and restore it to what it once was before the drilling ruined things.

Saying fight to the “death” is not an exaggeration with Louis Meeks. His health stinks and he’s already had heart and respiratory problems that have nearly killed him. He says his health issues stem from the stress of fighting Encana and the state of Wyoming as well as from drinking and showering in contaminated water.

Donna looks at me and without showing a stitch of emotion says she knows that the fight is going to kill her husband in the near future. She’s become fatalistic about the whole contamination situation, and she’s given up trying to get Louis to just quit and move away. “He won’t listen, that’s who he is,” she says. “He’ll die before he gives in to them. Then I guess I’ll just leave it and move on.”

Donna has lost all of her ability to smell and taste, a health issue she attributes to the gas field, which she says has ruined the air as well as the water. Louis hobbles over to a sink and pours me a glass jar full of water from his tap, shakes it and then offers me a drink. I recoil when the jar gets close to my nose. The water smells like kerosene, and only a fool would proceed further to find out if the flavor matched the stench. It did.

The Meeks have good reason to be mad. Life on this small spread was going pretty good until about seven years ago. They raised sheep and cattle, kept chickens and gardened, but then things changed forever.

In 2005, the couple’s water well started to produce the terrible-smelling and -tasting stuff that Louis handed me in the jar. So, after most of a year of drinking the tainted water, he decided to drill a new, deeper well in hopes of finding something better. When local water driller Louis Dickinson’s rig reached a depth of 540 feet, he shut down the operation to check on the water flow. A loud rumble could be heard coming from deep down in hole, and seconds later the water well blew out.

Louis Meeks’ new water well was producing gas at a rate of about 3 million cubic feet a day, from 540 feet. It shouldn’t have been possible. The gas sounded like a jet engine and shot a white foamy liquid 70 feet into the air. Louis was sure that his house, which was just a few feet away, would catch fire. A judge finally ordered Encana to use its equipment to contain the blowout after three days. Louis and Donna had no idea their troubles were just beginning.

Louis suspected that gas drilling around his place — two wells were within a thousand feet of his house — had caused the gas to migrate into the groundwater aquifers below his yard, and after researching the issues, he felt like fracking was the likely culprit.

Encana claimed that it was not at fault and that fracking could not have caused gas to migrate into the water wells. Under the terms of a settlement following the blowout, the company did agree to provide the couple with trucked-in water at a cost to the company of about $3,000 a month. It was a small conciliation.

Prior to the blowout in 2006, their home had appraised for around $239,000. After losing its water and experiencing the blowout, the property reappraised as essentially worthless. Louis says a local Realtor said she wouldn’t even list it.

In September 2009, Encana called Louis to a meeting in Riverton at their Wyoming offices. He thought and even hoped to a small degree that the company had called him in to make an offer to buy his property, even though he says he would never have been willing to accept any offer that would have gagged his ability to tell his story about what had been done to him, but he needn’t have worried about that. Encana simply wanted to inform him that it would no longer be paying for his water to be trucked in.

“It was a low point,” says Louis.

The man who thought he had found the perfect place to retire and live out the rest of his days had suddenly lost everything, and all he wanted to know was why. He was broke, sick and alone in his fight against the oil and gas industry, but not for long.

Meeks’ well-publicized criticism of Encana and its gas wells finally got his neighbors talking to one another, something Western ranchers do begrudgingly in the best of times. It’s a Western thing.

As it turns out, quite a few of them had developed similar water and health problems, and just like those that hit the Meeks, they all seemed to have started after the increased drilling and fracking got closer to their homes.

The families looked for answers and help. They had their water and air tested by Encana and the state, only to be told it was safe. Like the Meeks, they didn’t know where to turn at that point. “The state was on the side of the gas money,” says Louis. “They’d just lie to your face, just like the company.”

Driving around Muddy Ridge with Louis as a guide is like touring a battleground. He knows every well and every story that goes with it at this point. As we pass the Fenton property, he downloads the appropriate list of health issues for the family. John Fenton has constant headaches and has lost his energy. His son is having unexplained seizures, and the boy’s mother and grandmother, like his wife Donna, can’t smell or taste anything anymore.

After we round the corner and drive a ways we pass the Locker ranch, where 15 wells, 2 compressor stations and a contaminated open pit site are all within a quarter mile of the family’s home.

Louis tells me that the Lockers had water problems as far back as the ’90s, even before Encana bought the field. He says Rhonda Locker has severe nerve damage that shoots pain throughout her body, and that even the Mayo Clinic can’t figure out the cause.

The Meeks, Fenton and Locker families, along with others living in and around the Muddy Ridge gas field, eventually formed an organization called Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens (PACC). PACC connected up with the larger and already well-established Powder River Basin Resource Council, an organization that works primarily on coal and gas issues. It was this relationship that eventually led to Louis Meeks, John Fenton and Jeff Locker being able to tell their story to the investigators at the EPA’s Region 8 offices in Denver. It was this meeting with the EPA that would eventually get the agency to retest the water wells in Pavillion that the state and Encana had said were safe to use.

Eleven of 39 water wells initially tested by the EPA in 2008 showed serious contamination, including some toxins associated with fracking. The testing by the feds found compounds linked to diesel fuel, arsenic and methane gas, along with heavy metals. The testing also found adamantanes and butoxyethanol phosphate. Louis and Donna Meeks’ well also contained elevated readings of benzene, bisphenol and toluene. The Fenton and Locker wells were also found to be seriously contaminated.

Fenton has said that his home and land have lost at least half of their value, and Locker has been quoted in media accounts expressing similar concerns about his property’s diminished value. Pavillion-area real estate has taken an unimaginable hit.

All of this EPA testing was done without the benefit of knowing what they were looking for. That’s because the actual chemicals being used by Encana in its fracking process are considered a trade secret and, thanks to former vice President Dick Cheney pushing through the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which included a provision that prohibits the EPA from using the 1974 Clean Water Act to regulate fracking, they will likely stay a secret, no matter how many people get sick.

The folks living in the shadow of the Muddy Ridge field will be the first to tell you that the deck is stacked against the little guy, but they just keep fighting. It’s as if they honestly believe that at some point the truth will win out. It’s a type of nationalism that died for most people decades ago. I confess that I find it refreshing, yet it almost seems naïve in today’s political environment, where pay to play drives the outcomes. But it’s hard to argue with the small successes they have had.

Thanks to the efforts of a few stubborn ranchers, the Muddy Ridge gas field, located five to eight miles east of Pavillion’s center of town, is now the only place in the nation where any government agency has done the research and then concluded that fracking gas wells contaminated drinking water supplies. If he were dead, Dick Cheney would be rolling over in his grave.

This is quite an accomplishment, considering that there are plenty of other locations around the country — like Weld and Garfield counties in Colorado and a growing number of areas from Texas to Pennsylvania — where you can light up tap water like a Molotov cocktail. But so far, these other places are just considered to be unlucky or, at best, the victims of bad drilling practices not associated with fracking, such as poor cement jobs and improper surface casing depth.

As I continued my tour with Louis, I started to notice that, at times, he sounded an awful lot like Miss Ginny when it came to placing blame. As we would pass by ranches where the folks were not members of PACC, or used to be but had left the organization, there was always a theory to explain it: That guy got bought off, or they’re on the Encana payroll, or I’d like to know how he got that new truck, accusations like that. Considering all that has been done to him over the past seven years, it is hard to fault Louis for his anger at those who would question his motives or make friendly with his adversary, Encana. He has, after all, spent most of a decade living like an innocent man in prison, telling his story to anyone who would listen, only to be told to be quiet, the case is closed.

As for Miss Ginny and the Roost, Louis speculated that it was the high prices of her food that was causing her to lose business, and that she was just using him and the other people fighting for their lives against the gas industry as an excuse for her decline in customers. For the record, my four beers and a five-course meal cost me less than $20 at the Roost. I’ll happily do it again if it and Miss Ginny are still there the next time I get back that way.

So what is the “truth of Pavillion,” as Miss Ginny puts it, and why does it seem so elusive to so many of the area’s residents?

Sadly, Miss Ginny’s point of view as well as that of Louis Meeks are understandable, if not always grounded in the facts regarding the other side’s very real difficulties. It is simple human nature that is causing Pavillion to come undone. This is always how it ends.

At first, everyone is concerned about their neighbors’ contamination and health problems and wants to support them. But when one person’s poisoned water or air begins to wipe out the home equity, life savings or business of another person who of another person who lives far enough away from the contamination to not be personally affected by it, good will gives way to anger and blame. Truth be known, the fear of fracking and its associated economic fallout can be nearly as powerful a force as fracking itself when it comes to splitting a community wide open.

The water and air in the town of Pavillion may not be contaminated, but the housing prices have still collapsed as surely as if Encana were fracking a well at the town’s lone four-way stop at the corner of Center and Main. If a seller is lucky enough to find a buyer, he or she better be able to pay cash because the banks aren’t too eager to lend in Pavillion or anywhere near it these days. When it comes to fracking and the fear it generates, perception is reality.

For that reason, even though they may not like each other at this point, the townies and the people living on the Muddy Ridge gas field are all in the same boat, and pointing fingers isn’t going to get them out of their fracking mess.

There are a decade’s worth of lessons from Pavillion that can be helpful to communities all across the country, in places like Boulder County, where fracking and its associated fear are just beginning to significantly disrupt lives.

The finding by the EPA in 2011 that fracking contaminated drinking water makes Pavillion unique. So does the way that the agency’s intervention came about.

The EPA looked into Pavillion’s water problem because of the persistence of a few ranch families who refused to be silenced by the industry and state even after Encana and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) had both declared that the water in their wells was safe to drink.

Every situation is different, and just because the EPA came to the rescue in Pavillion doesn’t mean it will return calls to people who find themselves in similar circumstances in Colorado and elsewhere.

The EPA was already engaged in trying to figure out how an aquifer became heavily contaminated with benzene on Bureau of Land Management property only 180 miles from Pavillion. The Muddy Ridge complaints came along at just the right time to expand the agency’s research.

What I can glean from Pavillion, however, is that a small group of people can make a difference if they organize and remain committed no matter how long the fight, which in most cases involving the oil and gas industry takes years, not months.

That’s because fighting fracking regulations is the number one priority of the industry. According to a recent study conducted by BDO USA LLP that examined the annual reports of the largest 100 oil and gas companies, government regulation is seen as the biggest risk to the entire industry.

Another thing that made it possible for the ranchers to fight Encana on the fracking front in Pavillion is the area’s geology.

The Muddy Ridge gas field that created the conditions for fracking to contaminate groundwater is considerably different than gas fields we find around Boulder. The wells here are quite a bit deeper — total depth drilled tends to be 6,000 to 8,000 feet, compared to wells around Pavillion, which produce gas from zones as shallow as 1,500 to 3,500 feet below the surface.

That means that the separation between groundwater and gas producing formations here is much wider than in Pavillion and, therefore, it’s considered less likely that fracking fluids pumped into a gas-bearing formation will be able to migrate upwards several thousand feet to contaminate groundwater.

This certainly doesn’t mean it is impossible. Research has found that fracked gas has migrated as far as some 7,000 feet from its source. So in theory, it should be possible for fracking fluid to do the same. But it is far less likely that this will occur here than in the Pavillion area — and much more difficult to prove even if it were to happen.

By comparison, the EPA’s draft report on Pavillion dated Dec. 8, 2011, states that “fluids used for hydraulic fracturing were injected directly into the Wind River Formation.” That’s a big deal because this is one of the shallower formations, and it produces well water in the area. This is the kind of disaster that can happen when gas- and water-producing zones are found in such close proximity to one another, and it is a problem that can also be proven more easily than fracking issues at greater depths.

Fracking may be the buzz word that is driving the anti-drilling movement, but the actual process takes place deep underground, and it will continue to be nearly impossible to prove that contamination is the result of fracking. The industry will always be able to point to other sources that could have caused the contamination, such as bad cement and casing jobs or anything else that keeps the spotlight off of its goose that lays golden eggs, aka fracking. This is not to say that cement and casing aren’t important issues for communities trying to not become the next Pavillion.

When the EPA came to Muddy Ridge in 2008 and started testing existing water wells, it was already clear that there were several possible contamination sources besides fracking. There were a number of open pits in the area where fracking fluid had been placed for evaporation purposes after being recovered from use in surrounding wells. The EPA believed the pits were a likely source for groundwater contamination down to 200 feet or so, and the agency was right. The pits were leaking in Pavillion. Boulder County has had nearly 100 open pits at one time or another in our past, according to Shane Davis of the Sierra Club.

In addition, the EPA found problems with cement and casing at Muddy Ridge. Out of 169 wells examined, all but two failed to have casing that extended 150 feet below the maximum depth of area water wells, as required by Wyoming law. It was a shocking example of callously ignoring industry standards and practices.

Erie residents are afraid, and at least some of their fear may be justified if Encana’s history has any bearing on the company’s future actions.

Another lesson learned from Pavillion is that state governments are cash-strapped and need revenues from the oil and gas industry to pay for things like schools and prisons. As a result, they can be counted on to support the interests of the oil and gas companies, not the citizens breathing in the fumes from the wells in their front yards.

For example, in December 2011, the EPA finally published its controversial Pavillion draft report declaring that fracking had caused drinking water contamination. Then all hell broke loose.

According to phone records gathered by the Associated Press, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead called EPA Director Lisa Jackson the very next day and requested a one-month delay in releasing the report. He followed up the call in person two days later in Washington, D.C. He ultimately persuaded Jackson to wait. It was a mistake on her part.

The governor was hardly unbiased in his views on Pavillion, the EPA and Wyoming’s gas industry. Mead, his oil and gas industry cronies and his fellow elected officials around the country who were beholden to the oil lobby for campaign funds and state tax revenues used Jackson’s 30-day delay to launch a massive PR campaign to discredit the EPA’s Pavillion findings before they even came to light. Terms like “junk science” were applied to the report before it was available for peer review. And nearly every research firm and university funded by the oil industry pumped out a white paper saying fracking was not the cause of Pavillion’s contamination, but rather it was the same old culprits of bad oil field practices, including casing and open pit problems.

As a result of the pressure, the EPA agreed to go back to Pavillion and conduct additional testing, particularly in the two deep monitoring wells the agency drilled before finally releasing its report for peer review later in the fall.

I hate to be a pessimist, but I have seen this type of “retesting” under political pressure before. Don’t be surprised if come fall the EPA — which is essentially run by political appointees, not the agency’s scientists — announces that it has reversed its findings on fracking in Pavillion. It is amazing what can be put up for trade in exchange for campaign funds and battleground state endorsements in an election year. Unfortunately for the people who live there, Pavillion is a pretty good bargaining chip right now for a president that the industry doesn’t like.

In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former oil and gas geologist himself, has made his desire to see more drilling well known. He has also taken the lead in fighting the industry’s battles with municipalities that want to create their own ordinances regarding drilling practices in their jurisdiction, ordinances that would create larger setbacks from homes and prevent drilling around schools, parks and other public places.

Colorado’s attorney general has recently made it clear that the state will sue any local government that tries to create any oil and gas regulations other than those written and enforced by the state. Not only is state government not working to protect its citizens, it is actually threatening them on behalf of the oil and gas industry. And the intimidation is working.

Longmont was ready to pass its new set of drilling ordinances on May 22, and then the last-minute threat of a suit from the state caused four votes to flip. The best the council could then accomplish on the drilling front was to kick the town’s ordinance vote down the road a couple of months and then try again to pass it. But nothing will have changed. The state will still be bullying the city with its threat of a suit.

The people living in Pavillion and on top of the Muddy Ridge gas field never had the opportunity to create ordinances that might have protected their water, air, home values and health. The damage was already done before anyone there had ever heard of the word fracking. Knowing what they know now, would the threat of a lawsuit by the state of Wyoming — the same state that knowingly allowed them to be poisoned and is still fighting against them with all of its political power and wealth — have kept area residents from at least trying to pass regulations on drilling that could have protected their health and property values? I doubt it. Such a threat by the state seems trivial in comparison to the very real dangers that gas drilling and fracking brought with it.

At some point Boulder County and its cities will have to try to protect their citizens by regulating drilling activity themselves. Will the state really sue? Very likely, because it has a vested financial interest in seeing more wells drilled. But that is a small price to pay to avoid being the next Pavillion.

You may think that it’s only those people living on the outskirts of town, where most of today’s drilling is occurring, who are at risk. But if Pavillion has taught us anything it is that we are all in the same boat, and perception is reality.

Already people are starting to sell their Erie and Longmont homes to get away from fracking. Is it a rational thing to do at this point? It doesn’t matter. The more sellers and fewer buyers, the lower the prices go. And when prices start falling, lenders get scared and stop making mortgage loans. When that happens, housing prices collapse more rapidly, even if the water and air are fine. If you have a house anywhere in Erie or Longmont, or unincorporated Boulder or Weld counties, this is your fight, like it or not. Ask the people of Pavillion if being six miles from the nearest gas well makes you less vulnerable to the economic impacts of the fear of fracking.

For that reason, municipalities not only have a right but a duty to stand up to the oil companies and the state and fight for the right to create commonsense drilling ordinances that can protect the health and property values of their citizens.

This is the new ground zero in the fracking war, and Boulder County residents have an important role to play in the fight ahead.

That is the lesson of Pavillion.


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