Let the EPA finish its work in Pavillion, Wyoming

by John Fenton

Over the last few weeks, the gas industry and their advocates have gone to great lengths to refute the Environmental Protection Agency's draft report about the effects on groundwater of hydraulic fracturing - fracking -- for gas in Pavillion, Wyo.

In case you missed the story, on Dec. 8 the EPA released "confirmation of highly contaminated shallow groundwater occurring in the same aquifer as drinking water wells." Of course, this was no surprise for those of us who live and ranch here. We live with fouled drinking and stock water every day.

Now, a smear campaign is under way to cast doubt on the EPA's findings. Some of the Wyoming press has already passed judgment on the draft report, even though the investigation has not been criticized by any scientists or by those of us who live with the contamination.  The agency's report is also being attacked by the state of Wyoming and the gas industry before a peer review of the findings by scientists has even begun; what's more, 10 Republican U.S. senators are calling the EPA's work into question. They've asked for a more rigorous review, even though the EPA says its highest, most rigorous standards have already been followed.

A recent Casper Star-Tribune editorial says, "The report's flaws appear to be so substantial that it borders on worthless. Instead, it would be nice to redirect our efforts at designing a better study, one that will have more credibility in the eyes of the industry and state."

With all due respect, who at the newspaper has the education, expertise or experience to determine the quality of this complex, detailed scientific report?

The EPA draft report is a result of years of testing in Pavillion by over 20 scientists from across the county.  The most up-to-date testing protocols were followed to understand the condition of drinking water wells and water aquifers in the Pavillion area.  The EPA also took samples that were analyzed at multiple labs to ensure quality control.  The testing was not "more about politics than science" as the Star-Tribune charges; it is only becoming political because the gas industry is afraid of the results.

The newspaper calls for a do-over of the report:  "It would be nice to redirect our efforts at designing a better study, one that will have more credibility in the eyes of the industry and state." Why is the primary concern for the industry and the state?  Both have tried to bury the Pavillion area's problems for over a decade.  The EPA study finally did just what the agency is charged with doing -- protecting human health and the environment.

Wyoming state agencies never tested the water in Pavillion, and state staffers were more than happy to report to impacted residents that tests taken by EnCana Corp. proved their water was fine. But the EPA testing shows that the Pavillion area's water is not fine.

The media battle is being fueled by the most influential and least-regulated industry in modern times. Meanwhile, life hasn't changed for those of us living in "the gas patch." We have continually asked for information to help explain why we're getting sick.  That information now comes in the form of lab data from testing. To its credit, the EPA took the time and made the effort to monitor our wells and collect the data.

Our health is being impacted by the toxic elements and explosive levels of methane in our drinking water and aquifers.  When we turn on the tap, the water still reeks of hydrocarbons and chemicals.  Our drinking water now comes from five-gallon jugs. We wonder how we're going to support our families and pay our bills if the contamination affects our livestock and farming operations.  Selling out is no longer an option because property values in our community have declined to nothing.  Our homes and farms can't even be used as collateral.

All of us need to consider Wyoming's water, air and future before rushing to an uneducated opinion fueled by an industry that makes billions of dollars from fracking. And thanks to the EPA, we all have the opportunity now to read its draft report: (http://www.epa.gov/region8/superfund/wy/pavillion/). Let's allow the scientific work to be peer-reviewed in a timely manner as the EPA intends; let's allow it to be analyzed, shared and understood. It's time for all of us, and in particular the gas industry and government, to see what oil and gas development does to the water that lies beneath the earth.

John Fenton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a rancher in Pavillion, Wyoming, chairman of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens and a board member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

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