Hydrofracked: One man’s quest for answers about natural gas drilling

  • Louis Meeks of Pavillion, Wyoming, holds a jar of tainted water from his well. He believes the contamination is a result of nearby natural gas drilling, particularly hydraulic fracturing.

    Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
  • Louis Meeks, at home in Pavillion, Wyoming, where he's spent the last six years and most of his retirement savings trying to find out why his water well went bad.

    Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
  • Photographs of day two of the blowout of what was supposed to be a new water well at Louis Meeks' Pavillion home. What started with an explosion of foam and water that crystalized into a giant ice sculpture over the drill rig, turned into a three-day eruption of as much as 6 million cubic feet of natural gas, contained only after a judge ordered EnCana engineers to use their equipment to control it.

    Abrahm Lustgarten/ Propublica
  • Al Granberg/ Propublica
  • Oily residue glimmers on the surface of a wastewater pond near a drill rig outside Pinedale, Wyoming. The blue and red semi tanks to the right are filled with fracking fluid.

    Ted Wood/Aurora Photos
  • Jeff Locker, a neighbor of the Meekses, displays water filters from the well filtration system a drilling company put in at his house two years ago. The filter shown on the left is used.

    Daniel Wallis, Reuters
  • Al Granberg/ Propublica
  • John Fenton and Donna and Louis Meeks are reflected in a tank containing contaminated water from the Meeks well. The EPA has sampled the well water and found chemicals associated with natural-gas drilling, including benzene, toluene and methane, and warned the Meekses and others to not drink the water.

    Abrahm Lustgarten/ Propublica
  • John Fenton says his property value has dropped by half because of concerns about tainted well water.

    Abrahm Lustgarten/ Propublica
  • Water, gas and oil wells dot the landscape near Pavillion, Wyoming, as shown on this map from the EPA's first round of tests of water wells northeast of town. The EPA has found that 11 water wells have contaminants associated with natural-gas drilling, including some with strong ties to the fracking process.

    Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica

Pavillion, Wyoming

There are few things a family needs more than fresh drinking water. And Louis Meeks, a burly Vietnam War veteran with deep roots in the central Wyoming grasslands, had abundant water on his 40-acre alfalfa farm, which is speckled with apple and plum trees, on a rural dirt road five miles from the town of Pavillion. For 35 years, he drew it clear and sweet from a well near the front door of the plain, eight-room ranch house that he and his wife, Donna, own. The water was so good that neighbors used to pull off the road to fill plastic jugs for themselves.

But in the spring of 2005, Meeks' water turned fetid. His tap ran cloudy, and the filmy water shimmered with rainbow swirls. The scent was sharp, like gasoline. When he ran the pump for 20 minutes, the pipes would shudder and run dry.

The area's complicated geology includes some pockets of bad water, but Meeks suspected a different cause: industrial pollution. Pavillion lies in the middle of Wyoming's huge gas patch, which has thousands of  wells. Since the mid-1990s, more than 200 gas wells have been drilled right around the tiny town, which is home to 174 people. The drilling has left abandoned toxic waste pits scattered across the landscape. But Meeks believed the gas wells themselves were to blame. They extend far underground, considerably below his water well, which was a couple of hundred feet deep. The more Meeks learned, the more he was alarmed by one especially controversial step in the drilling process. The industry calls it hydraulic fracturing: the high-pressure injection of water and a brew of chemicals into a well to break apart rock formations and release the gas inside them.

The "fracking" process has spurred a natural gas rush that extends from New Mexico all the way to New York state. Gas has become a fashionable fuel that generates about one-fifth of the nation's electricity and heats about half of its homes. Fracking is even used for new oil wells in geologically challenging landscapes like the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and eastern Montana. But as Meeks would discover, no one really knows how far the chemicals spread underground when a well is fracked.

Three months before Meeks' water went bad, EnCana Oil & Gas USA Inc. -- one of North America's largest oil companies -- had laid pipe down Tribal Pavillion 24-2, a gas well about 500 feet from Meeks' house. EnCana said neither the drilling nor the fracking of 24-2, one of its many local gas wells, could have polluted Meeks' water well because the layer of natural gas was some 3,200 feet below the bottom of Meeks' well. The underground separation should have insulated Meeks' water supply from the gas well, the company said. However, in what it describes as a "good neighbor" gesture, EnCana began delivering a tanker truckload of fresh water to Meeks each month. State environmental officials provided little help, telling Meeks that his well water met national standards and was still safe to drink. The taste, they said, was probably from rare iron bacteria that can't easily be removed. But Meeks remained unconvinced, and his neighbors shared his worry: They stopped filling up their bottles with his water and even hesitated to touch it.

Dave Schipper
Dave Schipper Subscriber
Jul 12, 2011 06:21 PM
Forgive me if I am wrong in thinking it incongruous that pretty much the same people who are very cranked up about leaving our children and grandchildren with trillions of dollars in debt don't seem to care about leaving them with environmental catastrophes related to fracking other shortsighted, "grab the bucks now, give me jobs no matter what the cost" and simplistic "keep my energy costs low" initiatives. So we'll solve our long term financial issues, but blow off leaving future generations clean water, air, the ability to grow food, etc. They may be financially secure, but live in an increasingly untenable environment. How hypocritical.
Randy Albright
Randy Albright Subscriber
Jul 13, 2011 02:08 PM
While the statement "fifteen percent of Americans rely on private wells for domestic water" may be factually correct, it is a highly misleading statistic. In fact, almost half the US population drinks groundwater supplied by either a municipal water utility or a private domestic well, and even though only about 1% of the total fresh water used in the US is pumped from private domestic wells, a stunning 98% of the US population that doesn't have access to a municipal water supply - mostly rural residents - rely solely on private domestic wells for their water needs.

On top of that, in 2000, groundwater accounted for 42% of the water used by farmers for irrigation and 57% of the water used for livestock husbandry, so even if your drinking water source isn't groundwater, it's likely that you consume fruits, vegetable or meat raised with groundwater.

Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Jul 18, 2011 01:04 PM
Thanks for your careful reading, Randy. On behalf of the writer, I'd like to reiterate that his reporting of the statistic (percent of Americans relying on private wells) was accurate, according to the same USGS source you cite. And it was the primary focus of the story. You make some good points too, about how many people drink groundwater one way or another, etc.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Jul 21, 2011 02:36 PM
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Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor
Crista Worthy
Crista Worthy Subscriber
Jul 21, 2011 08:52 PM
Off the top of my head, three up-and-coming ways to extract energy are all so obviously insane:
1. Inject carcinogens into the ground so they can contaminate the water (fracking).
2. Tear up vast tracts of boreal forest to scoop up sand that has to be heated to get the oil, leaving vast quantities of polluted waste water. (Tar sands)
3. Heat up giant tracts of pristine redrock and shale to squeeze out some low-quality oil while shredding the landscape. (Shale)

All to me as dangerous to society as murder, drug trade, etc. The second two should be outlawed, and so should fracking if they can't figure out how to do it without the chemicals.
Randy Albright
Randy Albright Subscriber
Jul 22, 2011 12:00 PM
If the US made a serious committment to alternatives, we could convert our electric grid and a lot of our space heating needs to solar and wind in a relatively short time. I'm not talking about building vast solar arrays in pristine desert, either -that's the centralized utility model. I'm talking about developing decentralized capacity in the urban areas that consume the most power. Take a look at Albuquerque, San Diego or any sunbelt city on Google earth. Why aren't there solar electric and solar hot water panels on almost every roof top? Because the centralized utilities have lobbied long and hard to preserve the centralized generation model and prevent it from happening.
Kevin  Coleman
Kevin Coleman
Aug 29, 2011 08:31 AM
Randy you have summed it up in one simple comment. Too much interference from the utilitiy companies who want to protect their profits (despite protectionism being outlawed overseas under WTO rules) and too few opportunities for individuals to install their own solar electric and solar water systems.
Has it occurred to anyone that the prime reason that this is happening is the economic downturn and the fact that a lot of Americans cannot simply afford to invest in this lifesaving technology. Makes me wonder if the whole damn mess of economic instability wasn't a deliberate act on the part of some sizeable corporations just to styme any independence on the part of the people. So much for the land of the free.
Ginna Gemmell
Ginna Gemmell
Nov 04, 2011 06:12 AM
Thank you for such a well researched story. It's a cautionary tale for us in Pennsylvania, where Marcellus Gas leasing deals are reaching a frenzy. I've posted it on http://naturalgaspa.com/ with the hope that Mr. Meeks' story will be read and considered by our citizens before it's too late. Ginna