Residents impacted by leaking wells look to Encana and the state of Wyoming for a solution.
Evelyn stood on her deck overlooking a patchwork of green farmland and brown pastures stretching out to the low, dry hills on the horizon. Beyond them, mountains rose above the dusty brown foothills. Dozens of natural gas wells and scattered infrastructure broke up the pastoral scenery with buildings, tanks, compressor stations, and pipes that snaked out of the ground. Her dark glasses hid her eyes. Her jaw was set when she described the way gas drilling ramped up over the last couple of decades, and the changes that development brought.
Evelyn Griffin has lived in Wyoming since 1965. Both she and her husband were teachers when they arrived from Washington State. Evelyn currently lives just outside of Pavillion, a town that is home to 232 residents in central-western Wyoming, just east of the Wind River Range and well known for its ongoing controversy surrounding natural gas wells and their impacts on groundwater.
The Griffins found a close-knit community when they moved to the countryside. Looking out of the windows from Evelyn’s property you can see multiple neighborhood farms. The Griffins were new to farming when they arrived in the Pavillion area, “but with the help of friends and neighbors, we began to work the land,” Evelyn recounted of her beginnings in the community.
“I like the ability to be able to see far off. We can see the weather changes we have, we can see storms coming in, we can see clear up almost to Shoshone and the canyon when it’s nice and clear,” explained Griffin, “and then it’s just a free and open space, like we anticipated when we came to Wyoming.” What Evelyn didn’t anticipate was that without owning the mineral rights to her land, a company could come in and exploit its resources and there would be very little that she could do about it. When she looks out the window now, Evelyn sees the wells on her property that Encana Oil and Gas Inc. operates. There are 24 wells on her land today.
Those wells are drilled into the Wind River Formation, a complicated sequence of sandstones and channel deposits that are layered on top of each other. The formation is about 3,500 feet thick. Without an impermeable layer to stop gas migration between the gas production zone and the drinking water aquifers, gas wells need to be constructed in a way to protect shallow groundwater wells. Well casings must be lined with concrete down below the bottom of the deepest possible water supply. Any poor casing or gaps between the casing and drill bore allows gas to move freely up the open casing and out into the water-bearing layers, contaminating not only those layers, but all of the layers above as it makes its way to the surface.
Residents began to notice changes in their drinking water and brought their concerns to the EPA in 2008. In 2016, an EPA report was published on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing and its processes on groundwater. The case revealed that under certain conditions, hydraulic fracturing and its infrastructure did impact and contaminate the groundwater. Some of these conditions included spills, the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells with inadequate casing and mechanical integrity, and the disposal of fracking wastewater in unlined pits.
The EPA announced that it had found hydrocarbon contaminants including benzene, naphthalene and phenols, which are known carcinogens, in residents’ drinking water wells. Benzene has been linked to anaemia and birth defects in addition to causing cancer and naphthalene is known to cause liver and kidney damage, and even neurological damage. Methane can also leak out through [bad] well casings into the air bringing with it volatile organic compounds (VOC) as well as benzene, xylene, and other carcinogenic gasses.
Evelyn believes that there is a link between her family’s health and the surge of wells on her property. “My husband died of cancer. And to me that’s highly suspicious. He developed lumps on his neck, and they broke open and finally he was put under hospice care because there was really nothing else they could do,” said Evelyn.
After gas well drilling came into the area, Evelyn and her daughter noticed changes in their sense of smell and taste, Evelyn’s symptoms have been more severe than her daughter’s, having lost all sense of smell. “Not being able to smell, that could be dangerous. You know, for fire. I can’t smell the smoke or anything,” said Evelyn.
A steady breeze rattled nearby cottonwoods. If Evelyn still had a sense of smell, she might have caught the scent of prairie grasses or alfalfa that is typical of her ranch. The clean air and sweeping views are what she and her husband had moved to Wyoming for. Most of the chemicals that leak from gas wells are odorless, so even if they were making their way to her lungs, and Evelyn believes they’re a constant presence, she wouldn’t have been able to detect them anyway.
The town of Pavillion uses a different water source than the surrounding areas. “The town of Pavillion has not been affected, since we’re about five miles from Pavillion,” explained Evelyn. The surrounding areas are where the majority of the gas wells and the homes and water wells are located and where the water has been deemed unsafe for drinking. The water quality has decreased in line with the boom of the gas development in the Pavillion gas field. In the early 2000’s, the number of wells quadrupled. Today, there are 169 wells.
The Griffins and their neighbors reached out to Powder River Basin Resource Council for help with their water well problems and with the help of Powder River, organized a group called, Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens. “We worked together as a group and with Powder River to try to get our problems addressed, and they helped us a lot with our complaints,” said Griffin.
The wells impacted more than just her view from her home. They impacted the operation and future of the family’s farm, causing them to have to work around the wells. Evelyn’s water is now delivered to their home, since her tap water has been deemed unsafe for drinking and cooking. However, Evelyn explained, the water shipments are about all the help they have received. “We certainly want to know, what’s the future going to be like? How are they going to handle this?” said Griffin, “Will they maybe drill a well, somewhere out where we can all haul water? But that really shouldn’t be up to us because we didn’t cause all this.”
There are current bottled water deliveries to some families provided by Encana, although the company hasn’t admitted that there is a problem nor have they offered a long term solution. Other homes have water deliveries that fill cisterns on the resident’s property which is partially funded by the state. Scientists and hydrologists have proposed drilling a new municipal water well that would be located in a water formation that is not impacted by the gas wells but the water would have to be piped in to homes which is an expensive proposition. This type of solution isn’t unprecedented, nor is it particularly expensive in the scope of Wyoming water projects. Unfortunately, in the efforts to cover up the fracking contamination, Wyoming has enabled the industry to avoid fixing problems it’s caused through bad practices, and has left residents without clean water.
The state of Wyoming conducted its own study in 2016 on the impacts of fracking on groundwater that attempted to exonerate fracking as a cause. The study, which was given 1.5 million dollars from Encana, conducted some of its own sampling and hired other experts under the authority of the WOGCC (Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) to study the problem. Those studies indicated problems with the leaking and inadequate well casings and unlined production pits.
“Sometimes I wonder if it provides a source of income for the state but to the discontent of its residents that we can’t breathe good air like we used to,” said Griffin.“I would hope that Encana and the state get together and provide a solution for us.”
“I would like to see Encana cooperate as much as they can with the state and also be in on providing a safe source of water for us. I think Encana should be held responsible for that and for protecting the people and the people’s health,” said Evelyn.