Cause of Pavillion contamination still unclear, despite new data

Nov 11, 2011

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The Environmental Protection Agency first became involved in the Pavillion area in 2009 after residents noticed changes in odor, taste and color in their domestic water wells. They blamed the changes on oil and gas development in the area as well as hydraulic fracturing. The first few rounds of EPA sampling found methane in the water with a chemical signature indicating that it had come from the gas production reservoir, as well as diesel and gasoline range organics at low levels.  The results prompted the EPA to drill deep monitoring wells in the area, and on Wednesday, they released a second round of testing from those wells. Wyoming Public Radio’s Tristan Ahtone was at the release, and he filed this report.

TRISTAN AHTONE: Residents of Pavillion attended Wednesdays meeting hoping for answers to where contamination in their water may have come from, but found none. Instead, the EPA promised that a final report was just around the corner. Here’s Jim Martin, the EPA’s regional administrator out of Denver:

JIM MARTIN: Well we found a number of organic chemicals, some synthetic organic chemicals, uh, and a very high ph level, something we didn’t expect to find in the aquifer at that level, so some very interesting data that we’re going to have to evaluate very carefully over the course of the next few weeks as we finish our report and produce some findings and conclusions.

AHTONE: And here’s Ayn Schmit, chief of the EPA’s watershed and aquifer protection unit:

AYN SCHMIT: We’re seeing things there that are anomalies. We wouldn’t expect to see them, I mentioned, for example, the pH, it doesn’t look like the pH that we see in the rest of the aquifer. Likewise the synthetic organic chemicals aren’t something we would expect to see, so if I could make one summary statement it’s that we’re finding some things that raise questions.

AHTONE: Another thing they found was methane in the monitoring wells -- and a lot of it. So much so that the water bubbles. Schmit says the methane carried a chemical signature similar to methane found in the areas gas reservoir – as opposed to naturally produced methane found in peet bog or what’s produced by bacteria. It’s not necessarily anything new that the EPA hasn’t found before, but it still makes residents like Jeff Locker uneasy.

JEFF LOCKER: I’ve got a lot of the chemicals in my well, nothing real high except real high methanes … and they did find some glycols in there which we haven’t found before. But there’s a chance there could be contamination, but I guess they found a lot of glycols in a lot of wells this go around, so that’s a synthetic chemical and that’s a very big concern to me.

AHTONE: Locker is one of many residents who have complained about water changes over the last few years and health problems. Locker’s wife suffers from severe neuropathy – a disorder which occurs when nerves outside the brain and spinal cord are damaged – and has yet to find out why… and other residents have noticed headaches, loss of smell and taste, memory loss and respiratory problems which they blame on the areas water.

At this point, Encana, the oil and gas operator in the area, is paying for bottled water to be delivered to residents since the EPA has told residents not to drink or cook with their well water. However, Jeff Locker says the frustrating thing about tonight’s data release is that there’s still no indication of where the contamination is coming from.

LOCKER: Right now it puts us right back where we were, analyzing data, we really won’t know until we get the final report and see if they actually try to source it.

AHTONE: Then there’s another issue that’s raising concerns: the sale of Encana’s properties to a Midland, Texas-based company called Legacy Reserves LP. The $45-million deal was announced last week, and with no contract available for public viewing, residents worry who could be liable for damages or responsible for clean up if water contamination is linked to oil and gas development.

LOCKER: We’ll see what happens, whether we try to get a restraining order or something to stop the sale until after we have some answers. Whether they sell or not is none of my business but if they’re trying to unload so they don’t have an obligation for what they’ve done out here, that bothers me.

STEVE JONES: And we don’t know, at least that’s not clear, and from what I understand legacy reserves seems to feel that Encana is going to retain some liability, but I don’t know what Encana’s position is on that, so you could have a problem there under those kind of circumstances if the one company is going to be saying “well, that’s no longer our problem talk to the other one” and vice versa.

AHTONE: That’s Steve Jones, an attorney with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. He says because Pavillion is on the Wind River Reservation, the leases would most likely have to be approved by the Wind River Tribes and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And since the mineral rights lie with the tribe, they could demand to see the contract before approving the transfer. However, Jones says even that’s unclear.

JONES: But I don’t know, there might be some federal law that protects encana and legacy reserves from having to reveal that, but if you’re in a position where you can approve the transfer of the leases, that would be something I would want to ask for anyway.

AHTONE: Governor Matt Mead says the state can’t stop the sale, but that new ownership won’t affect liability should Encana be liable for contamination. Representatives from Encana and Legacy Reserves failed to return numerous calls for comment on the sale, and neither were in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting. Neither the Northern Arapaho nor the Eastern Shoshone would comment on whether they would have a hand in the sale. With no contract from the companies, no comment from the tribes and no conclusions on what the EPA’s data means, residents will remain concerned, and stuck. Again, resident Jeff Locker.

LOCKER: I raised my family there that’s my home. I don’t want to move but you have to be safe, you have to keep your family safe. So, we’ll be really anxious to see how the final report comes out, see if they do source it, or if its just considered an anomaly in the water.

AHTONE: The EPA plans to have a final report after the holidays. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Tristan Ahtone.