Published in High Country News (hcn.org). Reprinted with permission.
We need energy — but not at the cost of clean water
ESSAY – October 12, 2010
By Louis Meeks
My wife, Donna, and I have lived for 32 years on our ranch in Pavillion, Wyo., a lush agricultural area surrounded by the Wind River and Owl Creek mountains. In this dry region, we’re lucky to have an irrigation district that delivers clean water from the Wind River to the several hundred farmers and ranchers in the area.
We’ve worked hard to develop this place, raise our two kids and tend to our cattle and horses. I’m a Vietnam vet and Donna works in our local school district. At this stage in life, I thought I’d have time to enjoy our 4-year-old granddaughter as she learns how to ride a horse like her granddad does. Instead, I’m watching everything we’ve worked for poisoned by the oil and gas industry. I’m even reluctant to have my grandchild visit because of the chemical contamination in our water, soil and air.
We’ve lived around natural gas development in Pavillion since 1998. But 10 years ago, the drilling ramped way up to 100 or more wells, one large compressor plant and a smaller one. That same year, our neighbors began having problems with their water wells. Not long after Encana, a natural gas company from Canada, drilled a gas well near my neighbor’s house, his water well began to produce black, nasty water that smelled and tasted like gas. My neighbors talked to Encana and got help to install a reverse osmosis system to treat their water.
In 2004, Encana drilled a well about 500 feet from my house and even closer to my drinking water well. In the past, we always had clean, fresh water, but soon our water began to taste and smell like gas and the well began producing less water. Encana agreed to test the water and chlorinate it, and during testing the company hauled water into a cistern for us.
About seven months later, I decided to drill a new well since I was pretty sure the old one was contaminated. While drilling the new well, we hit gas, our new water well blew out and we were forced to evacuate our home. The state Homeland Security force and local firefighters closed off all roads to our home until we could get the gas contained without igniting it. You could hear and smell the plume, blowing 30 feet high under tremendous pressure. Encana cemented the well shut, and it was three days before we could return home.
We continued to haul in drinking water, only using the well water for household use and showering. It was during this time that we started having strange symptoms — our mouths were dry and Donna’s eyes kept stinging.
We had a hydrogeologist and drilling experts come out. They told us hydraulic fracturing had caused methane to migrate and collect underground. That meant that the fracturing chemicals were also moving around.
At first, Encana worked with us, but the more questions we asked — about what the “non-detect” levels really meant and what the extent really was of the contamination in our community — the more they treated us like backward troublemakers: “Don’t you want the country to be able to produce energy?” “Do you want to live naked in a tree and eat nuts without any modern conveniences?”
At least eight of my neighbors have problems with their water, and now, Encana has admitted to the state that there is water contamination from three pits that were dug on their well sites. But I’m overwhelmed at the imbalance of power between ordinary citizens and the gas companies. We have formed a community group, Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, because we want to ensure that our decision-makers strengthen and enforce the laws that are supposed to protect us.
The Environmental Protection Agency warns people in Pavillion not to drink from their water wells once tests find fracturing chemicals. That is hardly enough. We need our regulators and elected officials to conduct air monitoring and provide blood and urine testing for people who have already become sick. A community health survey found that 94 percent of the folks surveyed reported health problems that most likely can be attributed to these fracturing chemicals.
Encana needs to get the gas out, but the company has an obligation to do it right. We need to protect the people and the water for future generations. The energy industry has made such a mess that Wyoming may never be able to clean it up. Yes, we need energy to live good lives. But we can’t survive a day without clean water. Can you?
Louis Meeks is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Pavillion, Wyoming.