In many ways, it's a sad story: The groundwater a Wyoming couple relies on to sustain their little farm suddenly turns foul. So Louis Meeks embarks on a six-year crusade to discover how it happened, suspecting that nearby natural gas wells are somehow involved. He battles corporations and governments and alienates many of his neighbors, yet today his water is still contaminated. There's no happy ending, no justice in sight.
But Meeks and other gas-patch crusaders have accomplished something important: They've drawn attention to the industry's sometimes sloppy practices, particularly when it comes to hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." When a gas or oil well is fracked, chemicals and water are injected deep underground to fracture rock formations and release gas and oil. Nowadays, it's an essential part of the process.
The industry insists that fracking is safe. But some of the chemicals used in the process are carcinogenic, and the industry has fought to keep the exact ingredients secret. And though fracking is used in many thousands of gas and oil wells from the Southwest to New York state, there's never been a comprehensive, on-the-ground scientific study of its possible impacts on drinking water.
That is now changing, thanks to people like Meeks and determined staffers within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is finally launching the first real study of the risks posed by fracking; it plans to investigate the whole "life cycle" of the process and "the potential adverse impact ... on water quality and public health." Meanwhile, some companies have begun providing information about the chemicals they use, if only to reduce the possibility that stiff regulations will be imposed.
So the saga of Louis Meeks is not just sad; it also offers hope. Determined citizens can make a difference. And the story offers hope in another arena -- the future of journalism.
It was written by Abrahm Lustgarten, a reporter for ProPublica, the most substantial of the new nonprofit, online-only news operations. ProPublica was formed only three years ago and already it has won two Pulitzer Prizes -- the first Pulitzers ever awarded for online journalism. ProPublica specializes in investigative journalism, digging into topics ranging from medical care to Wall Street shenanigans. Based in New York City, supported by foundation grants and donations, it has more than 15 staff reporters and six editors who are determined to do "stories that make a difference, stories with moral force."
Sound familiar? High Country News has a similar mission, centered on the American West. At 41 years old, HCN might even be the oldest nonprofit news operation. Supported mainly by our subscribers but also by some grants and advertising, our magazine reaches roughly 60,000 readers. Our website, hcn.org, is seen by hundreds of thousands more.
In an era when journalism is undergoing wrenching changes, HCN is eager to work with the new generation of online-only operations. We are proud to print the story of Louis Meeks.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.