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

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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.

Suspicious correlations
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.

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