Gas drilling has blighted my life

We need energy -- but not at the cost of clean water

  • 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 ( He writes in Pavillion, Wyoming.

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

What can we do?
Jonathan Hebert
Jonathan Hebert
Oct 12, 2010 07:23 PM

My brother in law is a drilling engineer. I have spoken to him about water contaminating during the fracking process.

As a professional engineer myself, I would think that a good engineer could extract the gas without contaminating the water?

Jonathan Hebert
Jonathan Hebert
Oct 13, 2010 01:43 PM
I meant: " I have spoken to him about water contamination during the fracking process." :)
Oct 15, 2010 03:54 PM
I think this points out two very key points in the current energy debate.

The first point is that fracking will indeed unlock a huge amount of Natural gas that was trapped in formations and could expand our domestic supplies of natural gas (one of the cleanest carbon based fuels we have in this country) by a factor of 3 to 10. That is a huge deal if we are ever to get off foreign oil and begin to make the transition to carbon free or low carbon energy.

But the second point may be the deal killer. Fracking will likely have very serious environemental costs that we have not factored into the cost of the gas we will get from this new technology. I think that we will not be able to go to a landowner and lease a piece of land and then pay the owner a small royality for the gas. We will likely have to buy the entire property from the land owner and the properties of the people living in an area around the fracking and areas that share the aquafer near the site. This will change the whole cost structure of the new supply and needs to be considered at the very beginning.

Eric in Austin
Matthew Ebert
Matthew Ebert
Oct 15, 2010 09:00 AM
Interesting how this Vietnam veteran rancher was re-described as a granola-chewing hippie by the energy company. If you stand in the way of energy production, you must "want to live naked in a tree and eat nuts without any modern conveniences." Of course, everyone needs the environment, and ranchers are the original environmentalists. If you stop to think about it, we need land and water more than we need petroleum. The other common false argument is that opposition to fracking and other unhealthy energy production practices "costs jobs." Sure, energy production employs people. So does wind and solar production. The questions for me are, what kind of life do we want for ourselves, what kind of world do we want to leave our children, and grandchildren, why can't we find ways to provide energy without destroying the Earth?
John Deegan
John Deegan
Oct 15, 2010 05:26 PM
The comment made about the unanticipated environmental costs of this type of extraction was right on the mark. That sort of thing has always been the problem with energy companies in this country. They keep the cost of their products artificially low by redirecting the social and environmental costs of producing, refining, transporting, and distributing their products off on the taxpayers.

The entire cost of running the EPA's regulatory apparatus for fossil fuels, for instance, should be paid by them, not us, because it is they who profit from the products the EPA is intended to regulate.

They will of course then pass those costs down to consumers, who will then realize the TRUE cost of the product they buy.

And the EPA example is just one of the many societal costs of their products that we currently shoulder as taxpayers and individuals. Health issues stemming from exposure to petroleum products at all stages of its' production is another. So add a significant chunk of this nation's medical and health insurance costs, as well, to the cost of fossil fuels.

Once you factor all these things in, fossil fuels are no longer very cheap at all, and all those alternative energy technologies suddenly become very competetive.

Which is exactly why they don't want people paying the full costs. Their enormous profits would disappear as people switched to the new technologies.
A fracking solution
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Oct 19, 2010 06:54 PM
Let's grind up Dick Cheney and use his remains, in solution, for fracking in Wyoming. Poetic justice, no?
Louis Meeks
Timothy Ruggiero
Timothy Ruggiero
Dec 20, 2010 08:37 PM
Louis Meeks is a hero in my book. I know he didnlt mean it as a joke, but when he was appeared in Gasland, stating that he had been "Lied to by grown men..and the way he was raised, you are only as good as your word..If your word ain't no good, YOU ain't no good." It made me laugh. Mostly because these Industry characters keep using the same lies and same illogical arguments. God Bless you, and your family, Louis. Keep the faith, keep the fight.