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

Page 6

A crack in conventional wisdom
The industry's certainty about the safety of fracking seemed nearly unassailable. In a typical claim, Energy in Depth, an advocacy website associated with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, says that more than a million wells have been fracked in the past 60 years "without a single instance of drinking water contamination." The companies employ some of the brightest geological scientists, and the research papers that have emerged -- either directly from industry sources or from government agencies that contracted industry consultants to write them -- shaped the opinions of the regulators and policy-makers who read them.

Faced with so much official weight against him, Meeks negotiated a settlement with EnCana. The company paid him an undisclosed amount of money -- he says he can't reveal how much -- and promised to clean up his water. EnCana's Hock says the company had already spent more than $170,000 trying to help Meeks and answer his questions. But when EnCana asked a local company, Ward's Well Services, to treat Meeks' water, that company told EnCana it was impossible -- the water problems couldn't be solved.

Meeks' frustration was apparent to his family, so his son, Louis Jr., who grew up on the Pavillion farm and now lives in the Philippines, began looking for allies in late 2007. He called the Powder River Basin Resource Council, which works on coal- and gas-related issues in northern Wyoming. The council helped his father connect with Deb Thomas, organizer of an offshoot group, the Clark Resource Council, which had been battling aquifer contamination allegedly linked to drilling about 180 miles north of Pavillion.

Thomas came to Pavillion and met with Meeks. "When I got down there and saw what was going on, it was the same story," she says. "So I knew it was going to be really hard to get the state to act on their issues, just like it had been on ours. You aren't heard, because the state's main priority is the money that they get from the oil and gas development."

Thomas helped the Lockers, the Meekses and other locals form a new little group, Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, which researched other allegations of underground contamination and fracking-related problems. They found complaints across the country. In Colorado, where methane showed up frequently in water wells, some researchers thought it might come from gas reservoirs drilled deep underground. In Ohio, gas seepage from a natural gas well blew up a house. In Pennsylvania, the gas stored in a vast underground cave had somehow leaked into water supplies over 50 square miles. Only the Ohio case was explicitly tied to fracking, but the others raised questions about how contaminants might travel underground, apparently contradicting the industry's assertions that it was impossible for contaminants to migrate through thousands of feet of rock. But these incidents were never linked, in part because the state agencies handling them remain separate and uncoordinated.

Dennis Coleman, an international geologist and expert on tracking underground migration, says more data must be collected before anyone can say for sure that drilling contaminants have made their way to water or that fracking is to blame. But Coleman also says there's no reason to think it can't happen. Coleman's Illinois-based company, Isotech Laboratories, has both the government and the oil and gas industry as clients. He says he has seen methane gas seep underground for more than seven miles from its source. If methane can seep, the theory goes, so can fracking fluids. It's just that the theory remains unproven.

"This is a field where there is almost no research," says Thyne, the geologist and consultant. He's found methane and drilling wastewater in dozens of water samples, including from domestic wells, in Colorado and thinks it could have traveled through underground fractures. "It is very much an emerging problem."

Meeks says that when he was working on gas-well drilling rigs, there was often confusion among workers and engineers about the conditions underground; no one was sure where all the fluid and cement went. Well-cementing and construction techniques provide the first line of defense against water contamination, but he knew from experience that proper techniques were not always used. Even when they were, the outcome was unpredictable, in part because the rock bands deep underground were inconsistent.

"It is common knowledge that the lower layers are full of irregularities," says Patrick Jacobson, a Wyoming gas-rig worker who manages drilling-fluid pumps. The concrete can crack as it dries and expands, Jacobson says, or it can slip into cavities in the rock eroded by drilling fluids or into large natural gaps or cracks and never end up filling the well annulus -- the space immediately around the drilling pipe -- at all. Although fracking is not supposed to occur until the cement is hardened and its integrity is confirmed, rig workers often rush on to the next stage. "I think anybody who works in the oilfields, if they tell you the truth, would tell you the same thing," Jacobson says.
Mike Paque is director of the Ground Water Protection Council, an Oklahoma-based group composed of state oil and gas regulators, which has evaluated complaints of groundwater contamination near drilling. He says, "In almost all those cases where there was any indication that there were problems, it's been tagged back to poor casing (the steel liner inside a well) and cementing."

To the industry, that's evidence that fracking isn't a problem. The Energy in Depth website says that "well construction or cementing standards" are "orders of magnitude more relevant and important to the protection of drinking water than (fracking). But it's not as easy to demagogue those things."

Blaming casing and cementing without acknowledging how fracking affects them, however, oversimplifies the issue, according to EPA scientists. A cement job, for example, might seem fine until the force of fracking exploits a crack in it. But when that happens, groups like Energy in Depth tend to dismiss the entire episode as a cement problem. "You can certainly characterize fracturing as an event that happens on a Tuesday," says Nathan Wiser, an EPA fracturing expert. "It's a singular event in that well's life. But it can expose other weaknesses, and through the extra pressure that is exerted on the well at that time, it sort of shakes loose that problem."

At some point in the well bore, the casing ends altogether, and from that point downward the drill pipe runs naked through hundreds of feet of earth and bedrock. The solid rock layers are supposed to function like the cement, sealing in all the fluid that is pumped down, but things don't always go according to plan. Dale Henry, a retired Texas petroleum engineer and a fracking expert, says that as many as a third of the wells he worked on during his three-decades-long career would "lose circulation." That means that the pressure didn't build up the way it should have during the fracking, because fluids seeped out somewhere on the way down. It's like a garden hose with holes in it.

"Ninety percent of the time, you do not have cement behind the pipe for several thousand feet down at the bottom that keeps your fluids ... where you want them to be," Henry says. That goes for fracking fluids as well as the flow of gas and oil, drilling "mud" and "produced water," or chemicals and waste.

EnCana's Hock insists that the company is meticulous about casing its wells to the proper depths and fixing the casing whenever anything goes wrong. "No exceptions have ever been made to that practice." He says the company allows 12 to 24 hours for the cement to harden before fracking takes place.

But Meeks found apparent exceptions to Wyoming regulations that require cementing to extend at least 150 feet below the deepest permitted water wells nearby. The records showed that cement on gas wells near his house ran from 400 to 599 feet deep, even though the EPA says water wells in the area are drilled as deep as 750 feet, sometimes even deeper. In fact, the 24-2 gas well -- the one that had been drilled and fracked shortly before his water went bad -- had "circulation" problems during its construction, meaning that the cement may not have filled all the space between the well bore and the earth, and that its walls had to be strengthened. EnCana said those problems were minor and the well had never been compromised.

Meeks also found that Wyoming and most other states don't explicitly require the sort of well-pressure monitoring or cement testing that would help ensure that the fluids stay where they're supposed to. There were few public records documenting the effectiveness of the cement in gas wells or the frequency and success of fracking jobs.

The more Meeks learned, the more frustrated he became. He still had no scientific evidence connecting his clouded water with gas drilling. He'd made hundreds of phone calls and written dozens of letters to Wyoming's governor and to Congress. He and Donna even considered selling the farm, but that proved to be impossible. In January 2006, Meeks' property was appraised at $239,000, but in May 2008, Jane Rainwater, a local real estate agent, sent him a letter saying his place was essentially worthless. She couldn't list his property, she said. "Since the problem was well documented ... and since no generally-accepted reason for the blowout has been agreed upon," she wrote, "buyers may feel reluctant to purchase a property with this stigma."

Desperate, Meeks dove back into the records. He dug up the original environmental impact statement (done by the Bureau of Indian Affairs) for gas drilling near Pavillion, and found the names of scientists who had commented on the potential risks to water supplies. He picked one -- EPA's Greg Oberley -- and gave him a call.

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