Hydrofracked: One man’s quest for answers about natural gas drilling
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.
Meeks had planned to spend the rest of his life on the farm, so he decided to pay a contractor $13,000 of his retirement savings to drill a new water well. "It's a nice little place," Meeks says. "We raise our own lamb, raise our own beef, eggs, we put a garden in. It's pretty hard to just start over."
On Dec. 19, 2005, Meeks watched as his contractor's drill rig punctured one layer after another of clay, shale and sandstone bedrock interspersed with overlapping aquifers that trapped fresh water beneath the ground like a giant natural filter. The drill bit spun, whining against the alluvial mud and rock that folds beneath the foothills of the Wind River Range. It ploughed to 160 feet, but the water that spurted to the surface smelled foul, like a parking-lot puddle drenched in motor oil. When the drill bit hit 340 feet, the water still stank. At 440 feet, it wasn't any better. Geologists say that 30 rock formations containing fresh water may lie beneath Pavillion -- layers that supply drinking, irrigation and cattle water for almost all the rural residents in this part of Wyoming. How many of those layers were no longer clean?
At 540 feet, the new well still wasn't drawing suitable water, and Meeks' contractor, Louis Dickinson, shut down the engines and brought the drill bit to a rest. Before Dickinson could finish the job, a distant rumbling began to echo from below. It grew steadily louder, like some paranormal force winding its way through the earth. "Then, holy mackerel," says Meeks, "it just came on us."
An explosion of white foam and water, chased by a powerful stream of natural gas, shot out of the ground where the well had been drilled. It sprayed 200 feet through the air, nearly blowing the 70-foot-tall drilling derrick off its foundation, crystallizing in the frigid winter air and precipitating into a giant tower of ice. The blowout, roaring like a jet engine, continued for 72 hours, until a judge ordered EnCana engineers to use their equipment to control it. In that time, according to one estimate, 6 million cubic feet of natural gas shot out of Meeks' water well -- more than many gas wells in that part of Wyoming produce in an entire month.
Since that disastrous morning, Meeks has dedicated himself to finding out what happened to his water and trying to make it right. He's a reluctant volunteer on the front lines of a growing battle over the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing, unofficially representing thousands of other Westerners who also wonder whether fracking threatens their water. He's put in thousands of hours of research, gathering well records and scientific reports. Towering boxes filled with paper teeter against the wall of his living room, where buffalo hides cover two couches below the mounted bust of a large bull. He's spent more than $100,000 on the struggle, and now he is just about ruined.
Meeks was born in 1950 in Riverton, a ranching and drilling town 26 miles from Pavillion. One night in 1969, while he was stationed in Vietnam with the Army's 34th Engineer Battalion, his base was attacked. Rockets bombarded the barracks, and a piece of shrapnel sliced through his buttocks and into his gut. Meeks earned a Purple Heart and spent the next two years in hospitals. He came home to Wyoming and found work on a sheep-shearing crew and then on the oil and gas rigs. He was part of a cementing crew and a workover crew, stimulating old wells to produce more oil or gas. But his war injuries hampered his ability to do the grueling work, and so, he says, "They got rid of me."
Meeks has only an eighth-grade education, but his on-the-job knowledge of gas drilling provided a solid foundation for his long, arduous and expensive investigation of fracking. After the blowout, he researched the gas wells nearest to his house, particularly the 24-2. He dug into drilling and production records and hired an environmental engineer to help analyze the data.
One of his first big clues came from another well, the 14-2, about 1,000 feet away from the 24-2. It had been drilled in 1980, more than 23 years before EnCana bought the operations in that area. During the week Meeks' water well was erupting gas, the production in 14-2 fell off by about 25 percent. On the day Meeks' eruption was plugged, gas production at 14-2 more than tripled. He thought there had to be a connection between the 1,700-foot-deep gas well and his 540-foot-deep water well. The drilling industry insisted the geologic layers kept the wells isolated; EnCana called the eruption "merely coincidental" and speculated that his new water well had hit a natural pocket of methane. But Dickinson, who drilled the water well, says he had never experienced anything like it. "I've had a few blowouts," Dickinson says. "It was definitely coming from that lower formation." Meeks' question was: How?
Fracking works like this: First, a well is drilled thousands of feet into the earth, passing through layers of rock and water until it reaches the place where the gas is trapped -- in shale, tight sands or some other geological formation. The well bore, which narrows as it gets deeper, is partially encased in steel pipe, and concrete is pumped into the space surrounding it, extending deep enough to seal off the drinking water aquifers. The concrete and steel are supposed to separate the well from everything except the target zone at the bottom.
Then the fracking begins. Between 200,000 and 6 million gallons of water are mixed with a cocktail of solvents, surfactants and acids -- about 1 percent by volume -- and pumped into the well under thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch. The intense pressure cracks open the deep rocks, releasing the gas. Sand or other particles mixed with the fluids prop open the artificially created fractures so that gas and fluids can flow freely. Sometimes the drilling is turned to run horizontally -- deliberately angled to reach across thin layers of gas- and oil-bearing rock. When horizontal wells are fracked, they use vastly more fluid and chemicals.
In a typical fracked gas well, vertical or horizontal, it's unclear exactly how far these man-made cracks extend, or whether they connect with natural faults and fissures to create rogue pathways for gas and chemicals. The oil and gas industry has long insisted that fracking is harmless. The argument goes something like this: Think of the earth as a giant onion. People like Meeks get their water from just below the onion's papery skin, and the fracking occurs in much deeper layers. The in-between layers keep the water and the fracking separate, and the cement and steel around the well bore add to the security. Before 2004, very few people seriously questioned that argument.
Meeks couldn't find a single independent or peer-reviewed study of fracking's effects on water resources; the reports he found were mostly drafted by or paid for by the oil and gas industry. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had said fracking was safe, but it based its conclusion partly on a review of industry materials. The EPA had never tested water wells for possible impacts, even though many scientists say such testing is essential.
"The critical thing that has to be done is a systematic sampling of the background prior to (gas) drilling activity, during and after drilling activity," says geologist Geoffrey Thyne, a former professor at the Colorado School of Mines who's now an environmental engineering consultant who specializes in drilling and fracking. "Ideally, we would go out, we would put monitoring wells in and surround an area that was going to be fractured as part of normal operations." Doing that could run as much as $10 million, but Thyne says it would be a relatively small project for the U.S. Geological Survey or the EPA to undertake.
Even though Meeks' water was brown, smelled like fuel and tasted awful, standard drinking-water tests found no heavy metals, arsenic or other obvious contaminants, including benzene and other chemicals that traditionally indicate pollution from gas drilling. But the tests didn't look for the vast array of obscure compounds that can come from industrial processes like gas drilling and fracking, many of which are an industry secret.
Wyoming officials, including Mark Thiesse, then the West District groundwater supervisor for the Department of Environmental Quality, told Meeks they didn't have enough inspectors or money to conduct a full scientific analysis. Thiesse, who has since moved on to a different part of the DEQ, says the water seemed foul and the problem appeared to be related to drilling. But in tests done by EnCana and his agency, "We have not found hydrocarbons. We have not found fracking chemicals. We have found nothing out of the ordinary. So (any link is) pretty circumstantial."
Eventually, many of Meeks' neighbors -- fundamentally loyal to an industry that pumps billions of dollars into Wyoming's economy -- came to view him as a hothead threatening their livelihoods rather than a victim defending their water. One afternoon, Meeks was tearing out a section of fence by the road. "There's a preacher works a mile down. He stopped and said, 'You are the worst neighbor I could ever have,' " Meeks says. " 'Every time I see you, you've got a jar of water in your hand or you are in the newspaper. What if one of these days I want to sell my land? You're making it so I can't.' "
Nearly two years after his water first turned bad, Meeks felt like he was alone, an aging near-bankrupt crusader facing off against giant energy companies. "I was doing anything I could to get help," he says. "Nobody would listen to me."
The feds wake up
Hydraulic fracturing was first used commercially in 1949 by Halliburton, one of the world's largest oilfield service companies. Over the years, the process has been revamped to achieve more effective combinations of chemicals and pressure, enabling drillers to tap gas in ever-deeper and more challenging formations. In 1995, fracking was used in only a small percentage of gas wells, but by 2008, it was being used in nine out of 10 of the roughly 32,000 wells drilled in the U.S. each year. As the technology made it possible to reach resources that had been inaccessible, estimates of the nation's gas reserves jumped by two-thirds. Thirty-one states were being drilled in 2008, and geologists claimed the nation contained enough natural gas to supply its needs for a century.
"Hydraulic fracturing is one of the U.S. oil and gas industry's crowning achievements," says Lee Fuller, vice president of government affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America and an influential lobbyist who helped shape federal fracking policy. Fracturing, Fuller says, takes place "with surgical precision and unrivaled environmental safety records."
In recent years, the gas rush has spread from the Interior West to Arkansas and Louisiana and the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania, Maryland and upstate New York. Forests are checkered with five-acre pads cleared for wells and compressor stations. Tens of thousands of trucks deliver water for the various drilling processes and remove the polluted wastewater. Some state governments require drill rigs to be at least 150 feet from homes -- not out of any environmental concern, but because that's the distance necessary to protect a house should a typical 15-story, 1,200-horsepower rig topple over. A gas field is a huge landscape-scale factory, says Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, a New Mexico staffer for the Western Environmental Law Center, "just without a roof."
With hundreds of these factories ramping up production, reports of problems began to emerge.
In Clark, a small northern Wyoming town, benzene -- one of the chemicals used in fracking and other gas-well processes -- was detected in an aquifer after a well blowout. In central Colorado, near the town of Silt, a water well's cap blew off and started spewing nasty water just as gas wells were being fracked nearby. A few miles away, methane gas began bubbling up out of a placid eddy in a Colorado River tributary; then high levels of benzene were found. It was difficult to say what caused each of these incidents, but gas drilling and the close proximity of hydraulic fracturing were a common thread.
In Pavillion, Donna Meeks, who works as a bookkeeper for the Fremont County School District, learned that a co-worker had similar problems at home. Rhonda and Jeff Locker were battling illnesses that they suspected were caused by water contamination. Years earlier, before it was bought by EnCana, the Tom Brown gas-drilling company had paid for a water-filtration system in the Lockers' house. Though the Lockers lived just a short way down the road, the two families -- with typical Western taciturnity -- had never spoken to each other about their problems. "We weren't real open about our concerns," Jeff Locker says. "It's kind of like talking about your medical conditions."
If state and federal environment regulators addressed these incidents at all, they saw them as isolated problems, possibly related to longtime risks that gas wells might suffer various kinds of leaks, not symptoms of an emerging larger threat from the increased use of fracking. Regulators in different states rarely compared notes, and anecdotal stories were confined to local press reports and never thoroughly investigated. The dots were not connected.
Not, that is, until a problem emerged 90 miles west of Pavillion, in Sublette County, another wind-raked, sparsely populated area that overlies a deeply buried dome of gas-rich sandstone known as the Pinedale Anticline. In 1999, the Pinedale drilling field had fewer than 35 producing wells. By 2008, there were more than 1,100, and EnCana, Shell, BP and other companies were lining up to drill 4,400 additional wells on the ocean of sagebrush stretching across the county.
Much of the land in Sublette County is owned by the federal government, which meant that the Environmental Protection Agency -- rather than just state regulators -- had to conduct an environmental review before the new drilling could begin. As part of that review, in 2007 EPA hydrologists sampled a once-pristine aquifer that underlies the region. What they found was shocking: high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, in 88 samples taken across 28 miles.
"It was like, holy shit, this is huge," says Greg Oberley, a groundwater specialist at the EPA's Region 8 headquarters in Denver. "You've got benzene in a usable aquifer, and nobody is able to verbalize well, using factual information, how the benzene got there. Nobody understood what caused this."
In the past, water contamination in drilling fields had been blamed on outdated practices -- the messy mistakes of the 1950s. But most of the drilling around Pinedale was relatively new, and it seemed that any contamination linked to drilling also had to be linked to contemporary practices.
For perhaps the first time, the federal officials were alarmed. Oberley was among a small group of EPA scientists -- mostly based in Denver -- who wanted to begin fresh research into what was causing water pollution near drilling fields.
The stakes were high: Policy-makers -- even prominent environmental groups like the Sierra Club -- were championing natural gas as a fuel for power plants, because it burns cleaner than coal and produces fewer climate change-causing emissions. A natural-gas plant can emit as little as half the greenhouse gases that a coal plant does to generate the same amount of electricity, although that calculation doesn't include carbon emissions from gas fields, coal mines and other aspects of fuel gathering and processing.
If the EPA's scientists concluded that gas drilling posed a serious threat to water quality, it could have huge implications. Many of the urban and rural areas close to drilling zones get their water from aquifers, and 15 percent of Americans rely on private wells for domestic water. Private wells are not routinely tested for pollutants from drilling or any other industry, and there are no federal regulations to ensure their safety. Contaminants could also affect surface water supplies that supply drinking and irrigation water to millions of people.
"Are the problems we're seeing an anomaly? Or is the current regime (of gas drilling) with new fields and new practices compromising groundwater quality on a widespread, wide-scale basis?" wonders one senior EPA staff person, who declined to be named because the issue is so politically charged. "That's a question that we really don't have answers to. We have anecdotal reports. The weight of evidence, it's adding up."
Oberley realized that the issue required thorough, objective and time-consuming study. "For EPA to walk into industry's offices and say, 'You need to change this,' we have to have some pretty good data to back that up," Oberley says. "Because they're not going to respond to innuendo or insinuation that there's a problem."
Obstacles to research
Previously, the EPA had only looked briefly at fracking. In 2004, the agency published a study examining how the technique affected water supplies. It focused only on drilling for coalbed methane, however, whereas much of today's drilling is for gas or oil that's locked up in tight sands or shales. The study detailed concerns about the possibility of dangerous fluids migrating underground. But then, in an abrupt turn, it concluded that hydraulic fracturing "poses little or no threat" and "does not justify additional study." The one exception, that study found, was when diesel fuel (one of the sources of benzene) was used -- a practice the industry said it was discontinuing.
The EPA's 2004 findings were criticized in some scientific circles and by EPA whistleblower Wes Wilson, a recently retired environmental engineer who spent 36 years overseeing oil and gas industry impacts in the Rocky Mountain region. Wilson dismissed the study as "bogus." Although it included complaints about water problems from a handful of people, the EPA never tested their water or investigated their cases. Instead, the agency trusted the answers it received from state regulators. The study's final version was reviewed by a peer board that included former employees of BP, Halliburton and other oil and gas companies.
Politicians who supported the industry had tried for years to exempt fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the 1974 law that regulates the injection of waste and chemicals underground. The EPA's 2004 study was used to justify that effort. With the help of then-Vice President Dick Cheney -- the former head of Halliburton -- President George W. Bush's landmark energy legislation, the 2005 Energy Policy Act, included a provision that prohibited the EPA from regulating fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Regulation would be left to the states, many of which had underfunded agencies, looser standards and less manpower than the federal government.
EPA scientists were subtly pressured to cooperate, according to one former agency official. "The administration did not want us to take a formal position of opposition to the exemption," says Ben Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator at the time. The EPA never intended that its study would justify a broad legal exemption for fracking, Grumbles, now president of the Washington, D.C.-based Clean Water America Alliance, says. "We never construed it as a clean bill of health (for fracking)."
Nevertheless, the industry paraded the 2004 study as if it proved that water contamination could not be linked to the drilling process. "It shows there is no need for concern," says Doug Hock, an EnCana spokesman in Colorado. The case was closed: Fracking was safe, and the "Halliburton Loophole," as the exemption came to be called, effectively discouraged anyone in the EPA from considering what it might be doing to the environment.
"That door was nailed shut," says Oberley. "We absolutely do not look at fracking as an injection activity under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It's not done."
Other obstacles prevented the EPA from doing new research. The chemicals used in fracking -- the compounds that scientists would have to look for if they were to test water for contamination -- are mostly kept secret. Industry claims the information is proprietary, akin to Coca-Cola concealing its recipes from Pepsi. The trade names of the concoctions -- ZetaFlow, for example -- are disclosed, along with a statement of health risk intended for worker safety, called a Material Safety Data Sheet. But the exact chemicals and proportions that go into them remain a mystery.
That forces scientists to do a lot of guesswork. "We don't really know what those things that we should be looking for are," says Oberley. "That's been kind of an issue all along. ... The service companies haven't been fully disclosing to EPA what those constituents are."
The secrecy shocked Louis Meeks. How could everyone be so sure that gas drilling hadn't ruined his water if no one knew what chemicals were being used? Trying to figure it out was like shooting at a target blindfolded in the middle of the night. Yet Meeks was determined, and in October 2007, he paid an engineering firm $4,400 to test his water. A lab in Virginia analyzed it for an array of pollutants and found not only abnormal levels of chloride, iron and total dissolved solids, but also glycols, chemicals used in antifreeze -- and in gas wells.
That's when Meeks stopped wondering if he was crazy.
A crack in conventional wisdom
The industry's certainty about the safety of fracking seemed nearly unassailable. In a typical claim, Energy in Depth, an advocacy website associated with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, says that more than a million wells have been fracked in the past 60 years "without a single instance of drinking water contamination." The companies employ some of the brightest geological scientists, and the research papers that have emerged -- either directly from industry sources or from government agencies that contracted industry consultants to write them -- shaped the opinions of the regulators and policy-makers who read them.
Faced with so much official weight against him, Meeks negotiated a settlement with EnCana. The company paid him an undisclosed amount of money -- he says he can't reveal how much -- and promised to clean up his water. EnCana's Hock says the company had already spent more than $170,000 trying to help Meeks and answer his questions. But when EnCana asked a local company, Ward's Well Services, to treat Meeks' water, that company told EnCana it was impossible -- the water problems couldn't be solved.
Meeks' frustration was apparent to his family, so his son, Louis Jr., who grew up on the Pavillion farm and now lives in the Philippines, began looking for allies in late 2007. He called the Powder River Basin Resource Council, which works on coal- and gas-related issues in northern Wyoming. The council helped his father connect with Deb Thomas, organizer of an offshoot group, the Clark Resource Council, which had been battling aquifer contamination allegedly linked to drilling about 180 miles north of Pavillion.
Thomas came to Pavillion and met with Meeks. "When I got down there and saw what was going on, it was the same story," she says. "So I knew it was going to be really hard to get the state to act on their issues, just like it had been on ours. You aren't heard, because the state's main priority is the money that they get from the oil and gas development."
Thomas helped the Lockers, the Meekses and other locals form a new little group, Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, which researched other allegations of underground contamination and fracking-related problems. They found complaints across the country. In Colorado, where methane showed up frequently in water wells, some researchers thought it might come from gas reservoirs drilled deep underground. In Ohio, gas seepage from a natural gas well blew up a house. In Pennsylvania, the gas stored in a vast underground cave had somehow leaked into water supplies over 50 square miles. Only the Ohio case was explicitly tied to fracking, but the others raised questions about how contaminants might travel underground, apparently contradicting the industry's assertions that it was impossible for contaminants to migrate through thousands of feet of rock. But these incidents were never linked, in part because the state agencies handling them remain separate and uncoordinated.
Dennis Coleman, an international geologist and expert on tracking underground migration, says more data must be collected before anyone can say for sure that drilling contaminants have made their way to water or that fracking is to blame. But Coleman also says there's no reason to think it can't happen. Coleman's Illinois-based company, Isotech Laboratories, has both the government and the oil and gas industry as clients. He says he has seen methane gas seep underground for more than seven miles from its source. If methane can seep, the theory goes, so can fracking fluids. It's just that the theory remains unproven.
"This is a field where there is almost no research," says Thyne, the geologist and consultant. He's found methane and drilling wastewater in dozens of water samples, including from domestic wells, in Colorado and thinks it could have traveled through underground fractures. "It is very much an emerging problem."
Meeks says that when he was working on gas-well drilling rigs, there was often confusion among workers and engineers about the conditions underground; no one was sure where all the fluid and cement went. Well-cementing and construction techniques provide the first line of defense against water contamination, but he knew from experience that proper techniques were not always used. Even when they were, the outcome was unpredictable, in part because the rock bands deep underground were inconsistent.
"It is common knowledge that the lower layers are full of irregularities," says Patrick Jacobson, a Wyoming gas-rig worker who manages drilling-fluid pumps. The concrete can crack as it dries and expands, Jacobson says, or it can slip into cavities in the rock eroded by drilling fluids or into large natural gaps or cracks and never end up filling the well annulus -- the space immediately around the drilling pipe -- at all. Although fracking is not supposed to occur until the cement is hardened and its integrity is confirmed, rig workers often rush on to the next stage. "I think anybody who works in the oilfields, if they tell you the truth, would tell you the same thing," Jacobson says.
Mike Paque is director of the Ground Water Protection Council, an Oklahoma-based group composed of state oil and gas regulators, which has evaluated complaints of groundwater contamination near drilling. He says, "In almost all those cases where there was any indication that there were problems, it's been tagged back to poor casing (the steel liner inside a well) and cementing."
To the industry, that's evidence that fracking isn't a problem. The Energy in Depth website says that "well construction or cementing standards" are "orders of magnitude more relevant and important to the protection of drinking water than (fracking). But it's not as easy to demagogue those things."
Blaming casing and cementing without acknowledging how fracking affects them, however, oversimplifies the issue, according to EPA scientists. A cement job, for example, might seem fine until the force of fracking exploits a crack in it. But when that happens, groups like Energy in Depth tend to dismiss the entire episode as a cement problem. "You can certainly characterize fracturing as an event that happens on a Tuesday," says Nathan Wiser, an EPA fracturing expert. "It's a singular event in that well's life. But it can expose other weaknesses, and through the extra pressure that is exerted on the well at that time, it sort of shakes loose that problem."
At some point in the well bore, the casing ends altogether, and from that point downward the drill pipe runs naked through hundreds of feet of earth and bedrock. The solid rock layers are supposed to function like the cement, sealing in all the fluid that is pumped down, but things don't always go according to plan. Dale Henry, a retired Texas petroleum engineer and a fracking expert, says that as many as a third of the wells he worked on during his three-decades-long career would "lose circulation." That means that the pressure didn't build up the way it should have during the fracking, because fluids seeped out somewhere on the way down. It's like a garden hose with holes in it.
"Ninety percent of the time, you do not have cement behind the pipe for several thousand feet down at the bottom that keeps your fluids ... where you want them to be," Henry says. That goes for fracking fluids as well as the flow of gas and oil, drilling "mud" and "produced water," or chemicals and waste.
EnCana's Hock insists that the company is meticulous about casing its wells to the proper depths and fixing the casing whenever anything goes wrong. "No exceptions have ever been made to that practice." He says the company allows 12 to 24 hours for the cement to harden before fracking takes place.
But Meeks found apparent exceptions to Wyoming regulations that require cementing to extend at least 150 feet below the deepest permitted water wells nearby. The records showed that cement on gas wells near his house ran from 400 to 599 feet deep, even though the EPA says water wells in the area are drilled as deep as 750 feet, sometimes even deeper. In fact, the 24-2 gas well -- the one that had been drilled and fracked shortly before his water went bad -- had "circulation" problems during its construction, meaning that the cement may not have filled all the space between the well bore and the earth, and that its walls had to be strengthened. EnCana said those problems were minor and the well had never been compromised.
Meeks also found that Wyoming and most other states don't explicitly require the sort of well-pressure monitoring or cement testing that would help ensure that the fluids stay where they're supposed to. There were few public records documenting the effectiveness of the cement in gas wells or the frequency and success of fracking jobs.
The more Meeks learned, the more frustrated he became. He still had no scientific evidence connecting his clouded water with gas drilling. He'd made hundreds of phone calls and written dozens of letters to Wyoming's governor and to Congress. He and Donna even considered selling the farm, but that proved to be impossible. In January 2006, Meeks' property was appraised at $239,000, but in May 2008, Jane Rainwater, a local real estate agent, sent him a letter saying his place was essentially worthless. She couldn't list his property, she said. "Since the problem was well documented ... and since no generally-accepted reason for the blowout has been agreed upon," she wrote, "buyers may feel reluctant to purchase a property with this stigma."
Desperate, Meeks dove back into the records. He dug up the original environmental impact statement (done by the Bureau of Indian Affairs) for gas drilling near Pavillion, and found the names of scientists who had commented on the potential risks to water supplies. He picked one -- EPA's Greg Oberley -- and gave him a call.
A real investigation begins
On May 14, 2008, at Oberley's invitation, Meeks and two neighbors -- Jeff Locker and John Fenton -- traveled to downtown Denver to tell their story to EPA officials. Deb Thomas, the northern Wyoming activist, and another concerned resident from her area also came to the meeting. EPA representatives from many of the region's divisional offices were there, and so were representatives from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
Thomas opened with a PowerPoint presentation about how an August 2006 gas well blowout in her town -- Clark, Wyo. -- had contaminated local groundwater aquifers and soil. Then John Fenton said he believed that contaminated water caused his wife and mother to lose their sense of smell. The county assessor had told him his property lost half its value because of the water concerns. Jeff Locker described his wife's health problems, including intense nerve damage. "She would scream in pain, like someone was running knives through the bones in her shins," Locker says. "Then it worked through her spine, and now it will start and move up through her whole body." Rhonda Locker had been to some of the West's finest doctors, including the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Ariz., and no one could diagnose her problem. Then Meeks told his story.
"You could tell that people were frustrated, scared," recalls Luke Chavez, an EPA Superfund investigator who attended the meeting. Chavez had heard stories like this before, and in most cases he thought they turned out to be overblown. But the emotional presentation tugged at him and the others in the room. "You take what you hear with a grain of salt. But I went back and said, 'OK, so, can we at least get some information for these people?' "
Chavez, Oberley and others at the meeting persuaded their bosses to at least let them determine whether Pavillion's water was safe to drink. The agency found some money in its Superfund cleanup program to pay for the project, and Chavez was assigned to help lead it. Months passed. In February 2009, Chavez came to Meeks' house to have a look for himself. It was a frigid, blustery day. At a steel feed trough, Meeks turned on the hose connected to his problem well. The water splashed against the base of the bin and created a froth of small bubbles. On the surface, Chavez could see the sheen, a subtle oil slick. Meeks filled a mason jar and held it to the sun -- it was murky. Meeks shook it, opened the lid and sniffed. Grimacing and turning aside, he offered the jar to Chavez, who also sniffed it and recoiled.
"I was like, yeah, that's definitely worth at least doing some analysis," says Chavez, the kind of gregarious guy who seems more like a chatty neighbor than a federal investigator. He grew up on a farm in New Mexico's San Juan Basin, long home to some of the nation's most intensive gas drilling. There were two gas wells on his father's land, and Chavez saved for college by working as a roustabout on a drilling rig. He understood the Pavillion folks' instinctive distrust of the government and worked hard to build a rapport with them.
But even though gas drilling was a possible cause of the contamination, Chavez realized that systematic research was needed to nail it down. Was cropland fertilizer -- another possible contaminant -- used nearby? Did Meeks ever overhaul truck engines and spill diesel on the property? There was already known water contamination from several old waste pits in the area, and EnCana had a cleanup program under way; maybe the pollution Meeks and the others were finding in their water came from those sources.
In March 2009, four years after Meeks first had trouble with his water, a team from the EPA's Superfund program began collecting 39 water samples from around the Pavillion area. It was the first formal investigation into the local complaints. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Wind River Range, Oberley continued to collect water samples from the aquifer under the Pinedale Anticline, where he'd found benzene the year before; he was carefully assembling a broader set of data. In effect, the EPA had finally begun its first robust scientific examination of the environmental effects of natural gas drilling on the nation's water supply.
By this time, complaints about water contamination in drilling areas -- linked to various industry practices -- had become a national issue. New Mexico state officials released a report describing more than 700 incidents in which contaminants from oil and gas waste pits and other drilling byproducts had leaked into groundwater. Colorado regulators tallied more than 300 similar cases. A hospital nurse in Durango, Colo., nearly died of organ failure after treating a rig worker who had spilled fracking fluids on his clothing. Similar incidents where spills fouled water supplies were reported around the nation. (In response, Colorado's Legislature and state agencies toughened oversight of well construction and fracking in 2009, and New Mexico toughened its oversight of waste pits.)
In Louisiana, 16 cattle dropped dead after drinking fracking fluids from a puddle in a field. Pennsylvania communities faced widespread water-contamination problems from drilling. And in New York, which was bracing for a similar drilling onslaught, residents began fighting to keep hydraulic fracturing out of New York City's watershed. The New York state government began a comprehensive analysis of the new fracturing technology. Three Democratic members of Congress -- New York's Maurice Hinchey and Colorado's Diana DeGette and Jared Polis -- sponsored the FRAC Act, a bill that would end hydraulic fracturing's exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act and require oil and gas companies to disclose the names of the chemicals they used.
Meanwhile, the industry spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying against regulation. Industry trade groups pointed out that drilling development brings jobs to ailing communities and painted critics as unpatriotic heretics out to undermine U.S. energy independence. They drew support from local businesses and residents whose communities needed the money and the jobs. The industry kept repeating a claim that Meeks viewed as increasingly absurd: "As far as frack fluids getting into water, there's never been a proven case of that happening," says EnCana's Hock. "There has never been a documented case."
Contamination confirmed, but the cause still a mystery
On Aug. 11, 2009, Meeks got in his red 1994 Nissan pickup and drove to Pavillion's community center, a corrugated steel building with bare walls and concrete floors. He took a seat on one of the wooden benches facing a folding table and a projection screen. More than 80 other locals showed up, hoping for a breakthrough: The EPA had announced it was ready to reveal its findings.
With the room quiet and tense, Chavez, the EPA Superfund investigator, started off hesitantly: Of the 39 water samples his team had taken from around Pavillion, 11 were contaminated with chemicals, including some with strong ties to hydraulic fracturing. The EPA found arsenic, methane gas, diesel-fuel-like compounds and metals including copper and vanadium. Of particular concern were compounds called adamantanes -- a natural hydrocarbon found in gas -- and an obscure chemical called 2-butoxyethanol phosphate. 2-BEp is closely related to another substance that is known to be used in fracking solutions and causes reproductive problems in animals. The Meeks well -- the one that was contaminated in 2005 -- contained traces of benzene, toluene, diesel fuel, other petroleum hydrocarbons, bisphenol A (an endocrine-disrupting toxin used in plastics), the adamantanes, and methane. John Fenton's water had methane and bisphenols. And the Lockers' water contained arsenic, methane and metals.
Chavez cautioned that the findings were still tentative. Because the EPA didn't have a complete list of chemicals to work from, it had to go through the exhaustive process of scanning water samples for spikes in unidentified compounds and then running those compounds like fingerprints through a massive criminal database, hoping to find matches in a vast library of unregulated and understudied substances.
EnCana spokesman Randy Teeuwen stood up at the meeting and said, "We are as concerned as you are, and we want to find the source of these compounds, too." The comment drew jeers from the very crowd that had once regarded Meeks with such skepticism.
Jim Van Dorn, who represents Wyoming Rural Water, a nonprofit that advises utilities and private well owners on water management, turned back to Chavez. "If they'd tell us what they were using, then you could go out and test for things and it would make it a lot easier, right?" he shouted.
"Exactly," Chavez shot back.
But Chavez tried to put the information in context. The compounds weren't used exclusively in fracking fluids, he said. Some of them could also be found in common household cleaners. He wanted to temper expectations -- both of environmentalists and the industry -- and keep the relatively small Pavillion project from taking on outsized national significance.
"We're not ever going to say, 'Yeah, we know for sure,' " he says. "Even if we find risks or something ... again, it's Pavillion. It's Wyoming. It's one little small spot that has totally different geology than the Marcellus Shale (back East)."
No more water
In the fall of 2009, Meeks got a call to meet Teeuwen at the Holiday Inn in Riverton. He knew that EnCana, by the terms of its settlement with him, would eventually stop paying for his trucked-in water supply. But he still hoped that a broader settlement might be reached and that EnCana would buy him out. Pavillion Land Development, a real estate holding company that shares an office address with EnCana in Denver, had bought the home in Silt, Colo., where the water well blew out, along with at least one other Pavillion property that had contamination problems. Meeks imagined he would get a similar offer. Instead, Teeuwen told him that by Sept. 15, EnCana would remove the water tanker that had been parked and regularly refilled in front of his house. Meeks was stunned into silence. The tank and water deliveries cost some $3,000 per month, way too much for him to afford. The 26-mile drive home was one of the longest of his life.
"I didn't know what we were going to do," he says. "It makes you feel less like a man. You don't have no answer, and you can't get no answers."
Meeks invited local journalists to watch as the water tank was removed on Sept. 14. Then he began driving to town for water, carting it back in five-gallon jugs for his family's drinking and cooking, as winter's claws set in. It was impossible to bathe normally or use the water-filled radiators and furnace that were his main source of heat. He worried that it wasn't safe for his granddaughter to visit and urged his wife to move in with their daughter, who had a house in town. He blocked off the coldest rooms and huddled around the living room's pellet stove. He was too proud, too stubborn, and too much in love with his place to abandon it. And he still had cattle and sheep to care for. "Everything is invested in this place," he says. "How are you going to just walk away?"
By Christmas 2009, Meeks had given up on one front. Against the advice of the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control, and his own friends and family, he stomped out to his front yard with a box of tools and reconnected his fouled water well to the house's plumbing system, reviving his furnace and shower with a certifiably contaminated water supply.
Some of the chemicals in his water are believed to cause serious illnesses, including aplastic anemia and leukemia. Meeks didn't drink the water but used it for bathing and dishwashing. By January 2010, he was short of breath and had lesions and sores on his arms and legs. Doctors told him he had a respiratory infection, but couldn't say whether it was linked to the water, the stress, or his previous medical problems. (He's been in poor health since Vietnam.)
Meanwhile, the EPA took a big step. In March 2010, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced that the agency would undertake a major national study of fracking's possible threats to water supplies. This time, scientists would broaden their definition of fracking and examine every aspect of the process, from the transportation and disposal of the chemicals to the water supplies needed to make the process happen.
In New York in December 2010, Gov. David Paterson issued an executive order banning high-volume horizontal fracking until July 1, 2011. And several state legislatures -- including Wyoming's -- passed laws that require drilling companies to disclose many of the chemicals they pump into the ground (loopholes still allow some to be kept secret). A group of Democratic members of Congress revealed that fracking companies had continued to inject tens of millions of gallons of diesel fuel and diesel mixtures into the ground long after their 2005 promise to stop using it.
A few months after the EPA launched its national study, Chavez, Oberley and the others returned to Pavillion to announce the results of a second round of water testing. The residents of 20 households, including Louis Meeks, were told not to drink their water under any circumstances and to open windows for ventilation when they showered or washed clothes to prevent methane from building up enough to cause an explosion. The EPA found the worst contamination in test wells it drilled near the abandoned waste pits, raising fresh questions about whether the pits might be the source of Pavillion's groundwater contamination. Meeks remained convinced that the gas wells were the primary cause of the problem.
The EPA's fracking investigation is likely to move at a much slower pace than the drilling. In 2010, another 14,324 new gas wells were drilled in the U.S.; Wyoming alone issued more than 5,000 new permits. The agency is selecting a few geographic areas to focus its research on, and hopes to release a preliminary report by late 2012. That report will likely take into account what Duke University researchers found in tests of contaminated drinking water wells in Pennsylvania: The concentrations of the methane contamination increased substantially the closer a water well was to a natural gas well. That research -- the first to undergo peer review -- was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May.
Still, the EPA is facing intense political pressure from Congress -- the kind of pressure that in the past helped shape its hands-off approach to fracking. Investigations by ProPublica have revealed that pressure and discovered that some of the toxic wastewater created by fracking is radioactive, adding to the problems involved in its treatment and disposal. Wastewater is currently being dumped into rivers and streams that serve as sources for drinking water. And questions have begun to arise about how much cleaner gas is than coal in the first place. ProPublica has found that in places like Pavillion, so much stray gas leaks out of the wellheads that it almost makes up for the emissions benefits at the powerplant smokestacks.
Even if Meeks' water problems are not caused by fracking, his story highlights the kinds of challenges people face in the gas patch today. It also draws attention to the secrecy surrounding fracking, the lack of baseline studies, the scientific uncertainty, and the longtime reluctance of regulators to tackle the issue. Other people waged similarly lonely fights, but his was emblematic of the larger issues, and Pavillion was the only place in the U.S. where the EPA responded with an investigation.
Meeks is still living on his small ranch. The Wyoming government is considering piping municipal water out to his rural neighborhood. Until then, he and Donna, who is living at home again, and at least 20 other Pavillion families are drinking bottled water; EnCana pays for the water, which is distributed by a nonprofit intermediary. Meeks' granddaughter uses paper plates when she visits, and Meeks won't let her wash her hands before dinner. There is still no clean water for bathing, or for watering vegetables or feeding animals. Last November, Meeks had a heart attack. His doctors say it was probably caused by stress.
"I think a lot of people look at me and think, what did I end up with after five years?" Meeks says today. "I'm stupid for going up against a billion-dollar company. ... There is no end in sight," he adds. "But at least they are listening now."
Abrahm Lustgarten writes about energy, water and the environment for ProPublica, a nonprofit Pulitzer Prize-winning online news operation based in New York City. He's been investigating the environmental impacts of gas drilling for the last three years, including more than seven visits to Wyoming and Colorado gas fields -- coverage that earned him the George Polk Award for Environmental Reporting in 2010. He's a former staff writer and contributor to Fortune, and has written for Salon, Esquire, the Washington Post and The New York Times.