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 7

A real investigation begins
On May 14, 2008, at Oberley's invitation, Meeks and two neighbors -- Jeff Locker and John Fenton -- traveled to downtown Denver to tell their story to EPA officials. Deb Thomas, the northern Wyoming activist, and another concerned resident from her area also came to the meeting. EPA representatives from many of the region's divisional offices were there, and so were representatives from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.

Thomas opened with a PowerPoint presentation about how an August 2006 gas well blowout in her town -- Clark, Wyo. -- had contaminated local groundwater aquifers and soil. Then John Fenton said he believed that contaminated water caused his wife and mother to lose their sense of smell. The county assessor had told him his property lost half its value because of the water concerns. Jeff Locker described his wife's health problems, including intense nerve damage. "She would scream in pain, like someone was running knives through the bones in her shins," Locker says. "Then it worked through her spine, and now it will start and move up through her whole body." Rhonda Locker had been to some of the West's finest doctors, including the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Ariz., and no one could diagnose her problem. Then Meeks told his story.

"You could tell that people were frustrated, scared," recalls Luke Chavez, an EPA Superfund investigator who attended the meeting. Chavez had heard stories like this before, and in most cases he thought they turned out to be overblown. But the emotional presentation tugged at him and the others in the room. "You take what you hear with a grain of salt. But I went back and said, 'OK, so, can we at least get some information for these people?' "

Chavez, Oberley and others at the meeting persuaded their bosses to at least let them determine whether Pavillion's water was safe to drink. The agency found some money in its Superfund cleanup program to pay for the project, and Chavez was assigned to help lead it. Months passed. In February 2009, Chavez came to Meeks' house to have a look for himself. It was a frigid, blustery day. At a steel feed trough, Meeks turned on the hose connected to his problem well. The water splashed against the base of the bin and created a froth of small bubbles. On the surface, Chavez could see the sheen, a subtle oil slick. Meeks filled a mason jar and held it to the sun -- it was murky. Meeks shook it, opened the lid and sniffed. Grimacing and turning aside, he offered the jar to Chavez, who also sniffed it and recoiled.

"I was like, yeah, that's definitely worth at least doing some analysis," says Chavez, the kind of gregarious guy who seems more like a chatty neighbor than a federal investigator. He grew up on a farm in New Mexico's San Juan Basin, long home to some of the nation's most intensive gas drilling. There were two gas wells on his father's land, and Chavez saved for college by working as a roustabout on a drilling rig. He understood the Pavillion folks' instinctive distrust of the government and worked hard to build a rapport with them.

But even though gas drilling was a possible cause of the contamination, Chavez realized that systematic research was needed to nail it down. Was cropland fertilizer -- another possible contaminant -- used nearby? Did Meeks ever overhaul truck engines and spill diesel on the property? There was already known water contamination from several old waste pits in the area, and EnCana had a cleanup program under way; maybe the pollution Meeks and the others were finding in their water came from those sources.

In March 2009, four years after Meeks first had trouble with his water, a team from the EPA's Superfund program began collecting 39 water samples from around the Pavillion area. It was the first formal investigation into the local complaints. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Wind River Range, Oberley continued to collect water samples from the aquifer under the Pinedale Anticline, where he'd found benzene the year before; he was carefully assembling a broader set of data. In effect, the EPA had finally begun its first robust scientific examination of the environmental effects of natural gas drilling on the nation's water supply.

By this time, complaints about water contamination in drilling areas -- linked to various industry practices -- had become a national issue. New Mexico state officials released a report describing more than 700 incidents in which contaminants from oil and gas waste pits and other drilling byproducts had leaked into groundwater. Colorado regulators tallied more than 300 similar cases. A hospital nurse in Durango, Colo., nearly died of organ failure after treating a rig worker who had spilled fracking fluids on his clothing. Similar incidents where spills fouled water supplies were reported around the nation. (In response, Colorado's Legislature and state agencies toughened oversight of well construction and fracking in 2009, and New Mexico toughened its oversight of waste pits.)

In Louisiana, 16 cattle dropped dead after drinking fracking fluids from a puddle in a field. Pennsylvania communities faced widespread water-contamination problems from drilling. And in New York, which was bracing for a similar drilling onslaught, residents began fighting to keep hydraulic fracturing out of New York City's watershed. The New York state government began a comprehensive analysis of the new fracturing technology. Three Democratic members of Congress -- New York's Maurice Hinchey and Colorado's Diana DeGette and Jared Polis -- sponsored the FRAC Act, a bill that would end hydraulic fracturing's exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act and require oil and gas companies to disclose the names of the chemicals they used.

Meanwhile, the industry spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying against regulation. Industry trade groups pointed out that drilling development brings jobs to ailing communities and painted critics as unpatriotic heretics out to undermine U.S. energy independence. They drew support from local businesses and residents whose communities needed the money and the jobs. The industry kept repeating a claim that Meeks viewed as increasingly absurd: "As far as frack fluids getting into water, there's never been a proven case of that happening," says EnCana's Hock. "There has never been a documented case."

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