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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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."

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