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 9

No more water
In the fall of 2009, Meeks got a call to meet Teeuwen at the Holiday Inn in Riverton. He knew that EnCana, by the terms of its settlement with him, would eventually stop paying for his trucked-in water supply. But he still hoped that a broader settlement might be reached and that EnCana would buy him out. Pavillion Land Development, a real estate holding company that shares an office address with EnCana in Denver, had bought the home in Silt, Colo., where the water well blew out, along with at least one other Pavillion property that had contamination problems. Meeks imagined he would get a similar offer. Instead, Teeuwen told him that by Sept. 15, EnCana would remove the water tanker that had been parked and regularly refilled in front of his house. Meeks was stunned into silence. The tank and water deliveries cost some $3,000 per month, way too much for him to afford. The 26-mile drive home was one of the longest of his life.

"I didn't know what we were going to do," he says. "It makes you feel less like a man. You don't have no answer, and you can't get no answers."

Meeks invited local journalists to watch as the water tank was removed on Sept. 14. Then he began driving to town for water, carting it back in five-gallon jugs for his family's drinking and cooking, as winter's claws set in. It was impossible to bathe normally or use the water-filled radiators and furnace that were his main source of heat. He worried that it wasn't safe for his granddaughter to visit and urged his wife to move in with their daughter, who had a house in town. He blocked off the coldest rooms and huddled around the living room's pellet stove. He was too proud, too stubborn, and too much in love with his place to abandon it. And he still had cattle and sheep to care for. "Everything is invested in this place," he says. "How are you going to just walk away?"

By Christmas 2009, Meeks had given up on one front. Against the advice of the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control, and his own friends and family, he stomped out to his front yard with a box of tools and reconnected his fouled water well to the house's plumbing system, reviving his furnace and shower with a certifiably contaminated water supply.

Some of the chemicals in his water are believed to cause serious illnesses, including aplastic anemia and leukemia. Meeks didn't drink the water but used it for bathing and dishwashing. By January 2010, he was short of breath and had lesions and sores on his arms and legs. Doctors told him he had a respiratory infection, but couldn't say whether it was linked to the water, the stress, or his previous medical problems. (He's been in poor health since Vietnam.)

Meanwhile, the EPA took a big step. In March 2010, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson announced that the agency would undertake a major national study of fracking's possible threats to water supplies. This time, scientists would broaden their definition of fracking and examine every aspect of the process, from the transportation and disposal of the chemicals to the water supplies needed to make the process happen.

In New York in December 2010, Gov. David Paterson issued an executive order banning high-volume horizontal fracking until July 1, 2011. And several state legislatures -- including Wyoming's -- passed laws that require drilling companies to disclose many of the chemicals they pump into the ground (loopholes still allow some to be kept secret). A group of Democratic members of Congress revealed that fracking companies had continued to inject tens of millions of gallons of diesel fuel and diesel mixtures into the ground long after their 2005 promise to stop using it.

A few months after the EPA launched its national study, Chavez, Oberley and the others returned to Pavillion to announce the results of a second round of water testing. The residents of 20 households, including Louis Meeks, were told not to drink their water under any circumstances and to open windows for ventilation when they showered or washed clothes to prevent methane from building up enough to cause an explosion. The EPA found the worst contamination in test wells it drilled near the abandoned waste pits, raising fresh questions about whether the pits might be the source of Pavillion's groundwater contamination. Meeks remained convinced that the gas wells were the primary cause of the problem.

The EPA's fracking investigation is likely to move at a much slower pace than the drilling. In 2010, another 14,324 new gas wells were drilled in the U.S.; Wyoming alone issued more than 5,000 new permits. The agency is selecting a few geographic areas to focus its research on, and hopes to release a preliminary report by late 2012. That report will likely take into account what Duke University researchers found in tests of contaminated drinking water wells in Pennsylvania: The concentrations of the methane contamination increased substantially the closer a water well was to a natural gas well. That research -- the first to undergo peer review -- was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May.

Still, the EPA is facing intense political pressure from Congress -- the kind of pressure that in the past helped shape its hands-off approach to fracking. Investigations by ProPublica have revealed that pressure and discovered that some of the toxic wastewater created by fracking is radioactive, adding to the problems involved in its treatment and disposal. Wastewater is currently being dumped into rivers and streams that serve as sources for drinking water.  And questions have begun to arise about how much cleaner gas is than coal in the first place. ProPublica has found that in places like Pavillion, so much stray gas leaks out of the wellheads that it almost makes up for the emissions benefits at the powerplant smokestacks.

Even if Meeks' water problems are not caused by fracking, his story highlights the kinds of challenges people face in the gas patch today. It also draws attention to the secrecy surrounding fracking, the lack of baseline studies, the scientific uncertainty, and the longtime reluctance of regulators to tackle the issue. Other people waged similarly lonely fights, but his was emblematic of the larger issues, and Pavillion was the only place in the U.S. where the EPA responded with an investigation.

Meeks is still living on his small ranch. The Wyoming government is considering piping municipal water out to his rural neighborhood. Until then, he and Donna, who is living at home again, and at least 20 other Pavillion families are drinking bottled water; EnCana pays for the water, which is distributed by a nonprofit intermediary. Meeks' granddaughter uses paper plates when she visits, and Meeks won't let her wash her hands before dinner. There is still no clean water for bathing, or for watering vegetables or feeding animals. Last November, Meeks had a heart attack. His doctors say it was probably caused by stress.

"I think a lot of people look at me and think, what did I end up with after five years?" Meeks says today. "I'm stupid for going up against a billion-dollar company. ... There is no end in sight," he adds. "But at least they are listening now."

Abrahm Lustgarten writes about energy, water and the environment for ProPublica, a nonprofit Pulitzer Prize-winning online news operation based in New York City. He's been investigating the environmental impacts of gas drilling for the last three years, including more than seven visits to Wyoming and Colorado gas fields -- coverage that earned him the George Polk Award for Environmental Reporting in 2010. He's a former staff writer and contributor to Fortune, and has written for Salon, Esquire, the Washington Post and The New York Times.

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