Wyo. fracking contamination case eerily similar to Colorado’s Divide Creek accident

Louis Meeks says he witnessed shoddy hydraulic fracturing practices on his ranch near Pavillion, Wyo., by an oil and gas company fined for the same thing in Colorado, and wants the federal government to regulate the process because states seem incapable of proper oversight.

A natural gas drilling operation in northwest Colorado. (Creative Commons photo by Energy Tomorrow via Flickr)

A natural gas drilling operation in northwest Colorado. (Creative Commons photo by Energy Tomorrow via Flickr)

“My water well has been contaminated, and I believe it’s because EnCana drilled and fracked gas wells close to my well,” Meeks said in a release and on a conference call with reporters earlier this week. “The state has done nothing but watch, while EnCana contaminated the ground water where we get our drinking water. EnCana ruined my well and now that they can’t fix it, they’ve walked away. That’s why we need federal oversight.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last spring, in its first real testing of water wells near gas wells that are being “fracked” — a process of injecting water, sand and undisclosed chemicals into gas wells at high pressure to force open tight geological formations and free up more gas — found the presence of the toxic chemical 2-Butoxyethanol (or 2-BE) in Meeks’ water wells.

Such potential for contamination is one of the main reasons U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, (D-Denver) in June introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act to force oil and gas companies to more readily disclose the types of chemicals being injected into wells. The industry has spent millions to oppose the removal of a 2005 exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act because officials maintain secrecy is necessary for competitive reasons.

Asked to respond to EPA statements that the 2-BE, which is also contained in products such as degreasers, might be surface contamination from the ranch itself, Meeks said EnCana did a poor job of encasing the gas wells in cement to keep fracking fluids out of the water aquifer, something the company was heavily fined for in Garfield County in Colorado.

“If you do not get that cement job right and you go in there and perforate and frack, you are certainly asking for it, because that frack is going to go wherever it wants to go because the cement is not holding it right there where the perforations are,” Meeks said. “Also, I have some chemical records and drilling records right here in my house, and these guys are putting chemicals in from the top to the bottom [of wells].”

EnCana, says it’s concerned and working with the EPA in the Pavillion case, but the company was fined a record $370,000 by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) for a faulty concrete job on a well in the Divide Creek area near Silt in Garfield County.

The company denied fracking was the cause of methane and benzene seeping into the creek on Lisa Bracken’s property, and the COGCC agreed, disputing the findings of a county consultant, geologist Geoffrey Thyne, who concluded the contamination could be connected and required more study.

While COGCC director David Neslin said his agency might be open to more study of fracking in Garfield County, similar to a smaller-scale program it’s conducting in La Plata County, he does not feel the FRAC Act is necessary. In fact, he said it may spread his agency too thin and take away from its ability to police other environmental concerns.

He also contends the new, more environmentally stringent state drilling regulations that went into effect April 1 cover any concerns about fracking and the disclosure of chemicals because they force oil and gas companies to keep chemical inventories on hand and make them available to state regulators and emergency responders.

That, said Bruce Baizel, senior staff attorney with Durango-based Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project, is not adequate. He said the new rule merely requires a company to keep a quarterly record of more than 500 pounds of any particular chemical on a well site and make it available within 72 hours if there’s an accident or contamination question.

“What that doesn’t provide for is it doesn’t allow the public or a surface owner to gain access to what is being stored or used onsite,” Baizel said, “and with that 72-hour window, it doesn’t require that emergency responders get access to that or have a publicly available database that they can go to.”

Baizel said recent state hearings revealed more than 300 instances of contaminated water in Colorado since 2003 and more than 700 instances in New Mexico, requiring immediate federal oversight and additional study of the increasingly popular fracking process perfected by the oil-field service company Halliburton.

Industry officials counter there have never been any cases of contamination directly linked to fracking, and that nondisclosure of chemicals is as critical for competitive reasons as it is to food and beverage companies protecting proprietary formulas.

“[Fracking’s] got an exemplary safety record and it’s vital to ensuring an American energy source,” Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS), said in a previous interview. “Keep in mind that it has been regulated by the states for the last 60 years.”

But conservationists argue states are not getting the job done and that secrecy in the arena of injecting potentially hazardous chemicals puts the public at far too much risk.

“Coke and Pepsi is a perfect example,” said Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Boulder. “If you buy a can of Coke, you get to see what the ingredients are. You don’t know what the secret formula is that Coke actually keeps locked up and no one person actually knows, but you get to know the ingredients. The FRAC Act would disclose the ingredients but not the formulas, which are what remain proprietary.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

David O. Williams is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy,
environmental and political issues for the Colorado Independent since
2008, delivering impact journalism on a wide range of topics. A former
editor for the Vail Daily and Vail Trail, Williams’ work also has
appeared in numerous publications since 1988, including the New York
Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He appears periodically as a
guest on Rocky Mountain PBS and David Sirota’s show on 760 AM in
Denver. Williams is the founder, part owner and editor of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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