Jeff and Rhonda Locker look out across a cut alfalfa field. Newly cut rows of alfalfa stretch into the distance. Clean mountain air blows down from the Wind River Range. Nearby, two massive tanks and other oil and gas infrastructure tower over everything in view. Pipes come out of the ground, snaking into various pieces of equipment. Orange “danger” signs are plastered across the well pad.
“We bought our farm here in the 80s and we bought it because it had really good water, it was a quiet location, and it had really good ground to farm with,” Jeff said.
Jeff grew up east of Pavillion in Wyoming and has always loved the area. The Pavillion area is also where Rhonda and Jeff met, so it seemed like a natural fit to them to settle there.
“Jeff always wanted to farm and the area is known for producing some of the best alfalfa in the state. When we started, we started on a rundown dairy farm and took a lot of time to build that up. We loved our place. We loved the privacy and just the time we spent there, and all the wildlife we had in the area, and then the oil and gas industry came in,” Rhonda said.
Oil and gas drilling ramped up dramatically in the mid-1990s and the area where Jeff and Rhonda live and farm is a split estate situation. While gas drilling had been going on in the area since the 1940s, the density of wells was low. Regulations held wells at one well per 160- acres. Then, as gas drilling began to boom, the regulations were loosened to one well per 40 acres. Soon, wells began popping very close together up at an alarming pace.
“It happened in an afternoon,” Jeff said.
Shortly after oil and gas drilling started on the Locker property, Jeff recalled working out in his shop when Rhonda came running out of the house yelling to him that the washer was spewing dark water all over the laundry room. The next day, the same dark-colored water came out of the Lockers tap.
“The water was not drinkable the next day,” Jeff said. Jeff and Rhonda assumed that the issue with their water had to do with a gas well that was drilled roughly 800 feet from their home.
Jeff and Rhonda had numerous water tests throughout the years. They were told by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to avoid drinking the water at all costs due to the high TDS and sulfates and to be sure and vent their bathrooms and wellhouse due to the high level of methane gas in the water.
After that, the Lockers decided they wanted to sell their home. They were worried they would not be able to utilize the farm anymore or function without clean water. They had an open house and as a new family looked at their home they were hit with a pang of nostalgia. They had worked so hard to set up life there and they felt guilty for abandoning their hard work. Jeff and Rhonda decided to fight for their home.
Shortly after, the Lockers felt the real impacts of oil and gas.
“The impacts that we’ve seen through all of this has been to the air, water, and soil right here in this field here to the to the right of me,” Jeff said. Jeff gestures out beyond the well pad and its tanks and pipes.
The Lockers have also been evacuated by the oil and gas company on their land several times.
“They trenched through a line and we were evacuated out of our house in the middle of night, told we had to leave. I had cows in the corral. I was worried about our animals,” Jeff said.
The family has also been harassed since they started raising concerns about the oil and gas impacts they were facing. “We’ve been run off the roads by oil and gas water trucks and service trucks. My daughter was harassed at the door by one of the gas company’s employees accusing our family of killing his dog,” Jeff said.
So much had changed for the Lockers since oil and gas companies moved on to their land.
“We had good palatable water for 10 years, here. It was sweet and very tasty,” Jeff said.
The Lockers biggest concern with the development was with the gas well that was drilled 800 feet from their water well. After that well was drilled and black water came up their well, everything went downhill with their water.
Lockers and their neighbors called several organizations seeking help and the only organization that reached out to help them get organized and work to address the problems was Powder River Basin Resource Council. Powder River helped the landowners organize and form the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens to get the oil and gas impacts to their water and air investigated and addressed.
Rhonda knew the risks that bad water could cause and tried to avoid it as much as possible. Unfortunately, it was unavoidable at times.
“The longer we stayed in the house, the more we just knew the water was bad, because you’re showering in it, it’s entering through your skin, you’re doing your dishes in it, you know, you’re trying not to use the water for food or anything, but it just naturally happens sometimes,” Rhonda said.
Eventually, the Locker’s got the oil and gas company to install a filtration system to clean the water inside the Locker home. Sadly, the filtration system did not seem to be enough.
In 2004, Rhonda started to get sick. It started out with having recall problems and issues with tracking conversations. It escalated quickly and started to negatively impact Rhonda’s work as an executive director at a hospice organization. Rhonda retired earlier than expected last April.
“I never planned to retire at 57,” Rhonda said.
From an early age, Rhonda said she knew she loved working. She wasn’t ready to leave her job but knew it was the best thing for her health. She also felt optimistic about joining her husband on the farm full time.
“I always called her a Jazzercise girl,” Jeff said, “Rhonda was always very active and exercised a lot and was always very outgoing. One day, she was helping me pick up pipe and she just couldn’t do it and she thought she had the flu and she just never got better. We went to many medical doctors and they had no answers and we wound up taking her to the Mayo Clinic, to Rapid City to the rheumatoid arthritis center, to Salt Lake, we went to many doctors to try and diagnose what was going on with her and we have no clear answer but her symptoms are indicative of the fluids that they were using in the drilling process here.”
“I’ve always worked off-farm, and so you know, having my work days cut short was a little unexpected but I have to say being a couple and a team and farming is truly the life. It really is. You learn to love each other on a different level when your partner has neurological and physical difficulties that they didn’t have before,” Rhonda said.
The personality changes that occurred with the health problems have been the hardest for Rhonda and Jeff to cope with.
“The hardest thing for Jeff was feeling like he didn’t even know his wife anymore. That hurt a lot but that’s why this was so hard, it just essentially happened overnight and it’s been hard,” Rhonda said.
The majority of Rhonda and Jeff’s neighbors have been impacted by the oil and gas development.
“You look around this area, if you go up on a high point look at all the houses almost every household in this area has been impacted with cancer or serious illness,” Jeff said.
Jeff said it’s not just his wife who has been negatively impacted.
“We’ve lost a neighbor over here with cancer, we’ve lost another neighbor from over there with cancer. The house to the west of us, the neighbors up there his wife had to leave because she developed respiratory problems because of the air quality and so there’s a tremendous amount of health issues and so we want to hold the state accountable for that,” Jeff said.
Recently, one of Rhonda’s relatives left her some money when they passed. Jeff and Rhonda were able to move out of their home and bought a home and farm a few miles down the road, away from drilling.
“We realized that the longer I stay at our house, as my husband would say, he didn’t know if it was killing me by staying in the location we were because I just continued to get sicker and sicker,” Rhonda said. “It was finally our decision to move but it’s only because we had a farm that we were able to buy. But my gosh, what’s so hard about that is what if we didn’t have a relative who left us some money? How could we have moved? That’s what was so hard about that.”
The property values on their place near the drilling plummeted since drilling ramped up and the county assessor cut the value of the property in half. The Lockers believed they could not sell, even if they wanted to.
Their son is currently residing in their home, utilizing the cistern but both Rhonda and Jeff warn him he shouldn’t stay there permanently.
“I’d like to see the industry be accountable,” Rhonda said, “I know that the best work is still going to bring about the greatest reward but they need to do it in a way that is safe and fair for everyone.”
Responsible oil and gas development ensures the protection of lands, homes and communities from the impacts of oil and gas drilling and development. In Pavillion, residents and landowners are frustrated by the lack of clean drinking water, a frustration compounded by the state’s failure to find a permanent solution years after the problem began.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council and the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens got the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who began an investigation into the cause of the groundwater and soil contamination. However, Encana, the gas company that owns the wells, objected to the EPA being involved and pushed the state of Wyoming to take over the investigation.
Strong oversight from Powder River Basin Resource Council and the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens regarding the state investigation pushed investigators to disclose serious issues with many of the gas wells. The reports revealed inadequate well casings that caused the gas wells to leak methane and other fluids. This leaking methane may be the root cause of some of the groundwater problems. Unlined disposal pits were also identified as having caused soil contamination and possibly groundwater contamination. Since the investigation, many of those gas wells have been plugged and Encana continues to plug more gas wells and has been cleaning up and monitoring contaminated pit areas.
While plugging the leaking gas wells will help stop the problem from getting worse it will not clean up the existing contamination in the groundwater. The state also required Encana to provide drinking water to some of the impacted residents and the state helped to fund part of the water cistern installations.
The fact remains that Wyoming permitted the activities that caused the pollution and Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens and Powder River Basin Resource Council believe Wyoming has an obligation to Pavillion area residents to address the contamination by ensuring full clean-up of contaminated sites and plugging of leaking gas wells and most importantly, providing an adequate long-term supply of clean drinking water.