The Drinking Water “Reeks of Chemicals”: EPA Ties Fracking to Severe Groundwater Pollution in Wyoming Town


There’s something very wrong with the water in Pavillion, Wyoming. It reeks of chemicals. Local health officials warned residents not to drink it after the EPA found pollution in their wells. Some residents have reported health problems – shortness of breath, nausea, itchy skin and rashes, headaches and dizziness – consistent with chemical poisoning.

So what’s causing all the trouble in this tiny ranching town? According to a bombshell EPA report released Thursday, the drinking water in Pavillion has been poisoned by fracking – the highly controversial natural gas extraction process that’s ripping across rural America. The government report – the first to directly tie fracking operations to groundwater contamination – is sending shock waves through the oil and gas industry. The announcement could put the brakes on what has become the fastest-growing sector of the new energy economy. From a Dec. 8 Associated Press report:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that fracking – a controversial method of improving the productivity of oil and gas wells – may be to blame for causing groundwater pollution.

The draft finding could have a chilling effect in states trying to determine how to regulate the process.

The practice is called hydraulic fracturing and involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals underground to open fissures and improve the flow of oil or gas to the surface.

The EPA’s found that compounds likely associated with fracking chemicals had been detected in the groundwater beneath a Wyoming community where residents say their well water reeks of chemicals.

The problems in Pavillion, population 160, began in 2000 when the Canadian drilling company, EnCana, built two new compressor plants and drilled 100 new gas wells in the Pavillion-Muddy Ridge Field. Years later, Pavillion residents began noticing changes in their water quality. In 2009, the EPA began sampling the water in response to escalating public concern. In August 2009, the EPA released its initial findings: 11 of 39 drinking-water wells tested in Pavillion were contaminated with toxins associated with oil and gas production. Those findings upended repeated assurances from both Encana and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that there was no scientific evidence of hydrocarbons or toxic chemicals in residential wells.

Here’s how Abrahm Lustgarten covered the story for ProPublica back in August 2009:

Federal environment officials investigating drinking water contamination near the ranching town of Pavillion, Wyo., have found that at least three water wells contain a chemical used in the natural gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing. Scientists also found traces of other contaminants, including oil, gas or metals, in 11 of 39 wells tested there since March.

The study, which is being conducted under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program, is the first time the EPA has undertaken its own water analysis in response to complaints of contamination in drilling areas, and it could be pivotal in the national debate over the role of natural gas in America’s energy policy.

… Scientists in Wyoming will continue testing this fall to determine the level of chemicals in the water and exactly where they came from. If they find that the contamination did result from drilling, the placid plains arching up to the Wind River Range would become the first site where fracturing fluids have been scientifically linked to groundwater contamination.

Fast forward to current day. The latest EPA announcement officially confirms that the contamination found in 2009 is tied to fracking operations, making Wind River Range the first site where that link has been scientifically established. Needless to say, the news out of Pavillion has the fracking industry scrambling as the EPA prepares to reveal all of its findings to the public. More from the Dec. 8 AP report:

The EPA announcement has major implications for the vast increase in gas drilling in the U.S. in recent years. Fracking has played a large role in opening up many reserves.

The industry has long contended that fracking is safe, but environmentalists and some residents who live near drilling sites say it has poisoned groundwater.

The EPA said its announcement is the first step in a process of opening up its findings for review by the public and other scientists.

“EPA’s highest priority remains ensuring that Pavillion residents have access to safe drinking water,” said Jim Martin, EPA regional administrator in Denver. “We look forward to having these findings in the draft report informed by a transparent and public review process.”

Mr. Martin is right. Public safety must be the highest priority, as some Pavillion residents have already reported a variety of health problems associated with exposure to toxins. Earthworks, an environmental watchdog group, and the Powder River Basin Resource Council commissioned a health survey in Pavillion after the EPA revealed it had found contamination in residents’ drinking-water wells in 2009. The findings were startling by any standard. From an Aug. 18, 2010, Earthworks press release:

The survey results come after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified known oil and gas chemicals in residents’ drinking water wells last year as part of a Superfund Investigation.

… Since the development of the oil and gas resources in the area, Pavillion residents have reported contamination and health impacts that they suspect are coming from Encana’s Pavillion/Muddy Ridge gas-field. Residents’ symptoms have ranged from rashes and headaches to neurological disorders and cancers. The survey found 94% of participants reported health impacts that are known effects of chemicals identified last year in drinking water wells.

A significant survey finding also includes 81% of participants reporting respiratory ailments. This indicates that a primary pathway of human exposure to chemicals in the area may be occurring through air pathways, such as industrial releases and from showering or washing dishes with contaminated water. Based on the survey, the landowners and groups are calling for regulators to identify the source of contamination, conduct residential and regional air-monitoring, and to implement medical monitoring in which residents with health impacts can receive blood and urine testing.

Based on the EPA’s latest announcement, Encana could face a mountain of liability – both property damage and personal injury. And by extension, the outlook for the entire high-flying fracking industry just got a lot bleaker. You can bet that fracking opponents everywhere will be pointing to Pavillion as proof of the unacceptable dangers associated with this ultra-controversial process.

In closing, I hope those impacted in Pavillion seek legal counsel with experience litigating against oil and gas companies. The victims and their attorneys will be battling an extremely powerful industry with an enormous amount at stake. Hardball is the only game these folks know. I’ve seen industry legal teams crush inexperienced plaintiff attorneys in the courtroom.

We’ll be staying all over this fast-moving story so check back soon.

Read the full AP report here:

Read the 2009 ProPublica report on the EPA’s initial findings in Pavillion:

Review the Earthworks “health survey” press release here:

For all the latest fracking news, checkout our new website:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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