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Don't drink the (benzene) water

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Cally Carswell | Nov 30, 2011 06:00 AM

In 2005, Louis Meeks’ water well in Pavillion, Wyo., which had reliably supplied his family for decades, suddenly turned brown and filmy, and smelled like gasoline. When he tried to drill a new domestic well, water, steam and natural gas exploded some 200 feet into the air. Meeks and some of his neighbors, whose well water had also become contaminated, suspected natural gas development, and the controversial drilling process called fracking, were to blame. Abrahm Lustgarten, of the investigative journalism outfit ProPublica, told their story in HCN this summer: 

One of (Meeks') first big clues came from (a gas well near his home), the 14-2... 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. 

Louis MeeksMeeks and his neighbors -- like so many other gas patch residents who believe the process of fracturing rocks to release trapped gas creates pathways for gas and chemicals in frack fluid to migrate into water wells -- couldn’t prove otherwise. 

But they did convince the EPA to begin testing Pavillion wells in 2009 to determine the extent and nature of the contamination. They found pollutants in 11 of 39 samples, some of which looked like they could be associated with fracking. The agency then drilled monitoring wells in a Pavillion aquifer. Those tests, released this month, found the aquifer contained carcinogenic benzene at 50 times the federal limit. Traces of diesel, which contains benzene and until recently was common in fracking fluid, were also found, as was 2-Butoxyethanol, a chemical frequently used to frack gas wells. 

Count it as more circumstantial evidence to add to the pile. "The EPA said water samples were saturated with methane gas that matched the deep layers of natural gas being drilled for energy," Lustgarten wrote this month when the results were released. "The gas did not match the shallower methane that the gas industry says is naturally occurring in water, a signal that the contamination was related to drilling and was less likely to have come from drilling waste spilled above ground." The contaminants also don't appear to be linked to agricultural pollution. Still, the agency hasn't yet come to a hard-and-fast conclusion about whether gas drilling fouled the water. 

But they are considering the possibility. "It is possible that fracking in one (gas) bearing zone may have impacted nearby areas that may contain some groundwater," EPA chief Lisa Jackson said in a recent interview.

While that may sound like a big fat bureaucratic hedge to some ears, to worried Pavillion residents it sounded brave. "It took courage for her to say that, because that's a bold statement," Pavillion rancher John Fenton told the Casper Star-Tribune. The investigation seems to have shaken some in the industry's confidence that gas drilling isn't to blame for water contamination in the area. A Texas company just pulled out of a deal to purchase natural gas facilities around Pavillion because of the "uncertainty" surrounding the polluted water.  And this is the first time Jackson has publicly suggested even a potential link between gas drilling and contaminated groundwater. "People that live with it on a daily basis," said Fenton, "we've been waiting for someone in her position to say that." 

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor. 

Photo: Louis Meeks holds a jar of tainted water from his well. Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica.

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