EPA report: Pavillion well water tainted with chemicals consistent with fracking

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today released draft findings in its ongoing investigation of contaminated well water near natural gas drilling in Pavillion, Wyo. The draft report “indicates detection of synthetic chemicals … consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids.”

Louis Meeks’ well water near Pavillion, Wyo., contains methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica).
The EPA is publishing the draft findings in order to obtain public comment and independent scientific review, but the report is sure to be used as the most solid piece of evidence to date that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” can taint groundwater. The oil and gas industry maintains the process has never been proven to communicate with drinking water supplies.

“EPA’s highest priority remains ensuring that Pavillion residents have access to safe drinking water,” Jim Martin, EPA’s regional administrator in Denver said in a press release. Martin is the former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “We will continue to work cooperatively with the State, Tribes, Encana and the community to secure long-term drinking water solutions.

“We look forward to having these findings in the draft report informed by a transparent and public review process. In consultation with the Tribes, EPA will also work with the State on additional investigation of the Pavillion field.”

Pavillion is within the Wind River Indian Reservation. Residents there have been warned not to drink the local well water, and the Canadian oil and gas company EnCana has been supplying clean drinking water. However, the company disputes that fracking has led to well water contamination.

At the request of area residents, the EPA has been testing two deep water monitoring wells.

“EPA’s analysis of samples taken from the agency’s deep monitoring wells in the aquifer indicates detection of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels,” the report states.

“Given the area’s complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to ground water contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking water wells over time.”

The EPA also conducted new sampling of drinking water wells in the area.

“Chemicals detected in the most recent samples are consistent with those identified in earlier EPA samples and include methane, other petroleum hydrocarbons and other chemical compounds,” the EPA reports. “The presence of these compounds is consistent with migration from areas of gas production. Detections in drinking water wells are generally below established health and safety standards.”

Republican politicians have already started attacking the EPA’s ongoing investigation in Pavillion, but the agency is taking great pains to point out that geological conditions are different all around the country and that what’s true in the Pavillion case may not apply to other areas where fracking is suspected of tainting groundwater.

“The draft findings announced today are specific to Pavillion, where the fracturing is taking place in and below the drinking water aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water wells – production conditions different from those in many other areas of the country,” EPA officials said in a release.

Anti-drilling activists in Colorado have also pointed to a 1984 EPA report on fracking in West Virginia as evidence that the process can contaminate drinking water supplies with carcinogenic chemicals. But the Pavillion case represents the most clear-cut contemporary example.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper this summer said with certainty that fracking fluids don’t communicate with groundwater, but he still ordered a new chemical disclosure rule to be drafted. That rulemaking process is still under way.

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