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.