Natural gas operations are not linked to groundwater contamination in the Pinedale area, according to a new Bureau of Land Management report.
But that finding did not quell the concerns of some local environmentalists, who said the study failed to explain groundwater contamination in the region.
The report, released Wednesday, said low levels of hydrocarbons detected in groundwater wells in what's known as the Pinedale Anticline Production Area were largely attributable to natural processes. It found there was no widespread evidence linking those chemicals to spills, leaks or other byproducts of natural gas development. And it concluded no further mitigation efforts were needed to address water pollution in the area.
The study was developed in response to concerns about water quality in a region that is home of the Jonah field, one of Wyoming's largest natural gas developments.
“By and large, looking at the data, I think the conclusion is sound,” said Merry Gamper, a BLM fluid minerals and physical scientist specialist. “These are good results for us.”
Environmentalists disagreed. Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Alliance, a Pinedale-based advocacy group, was still sifting through the nearly 300-page report, its associated tables and laboratory results on Thursday. She said she had unanswered questions about BLM’s methodology and whether the agency had pinpointed the sources of groundwater contamination.
Mostly she was worried about the bureau’s conclusion. Baker pointed out that the study detected low levels benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes in many wells.
“It seems to me that the BLM is saying our groundwater has low levels of carcinogenic substances naturally. That’s not something that has ever been brought up in the history of water use in Wyoming, to my knowledge,” Baker said. “That this should be discovered in the same area where natural gas is being discovered is curious.”
Elaine Crumpley, chairwoman of Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development, a Pinedale environmental group, noted that ozone levels in the region have exceeded federal standards on several occasions in recent years. Water used in natural gas production is one source for ozone emissions, and yet the BLM report finds no connection between water contamination and energy production, she said.
“They say there is nothing wrong with it. Then why do we have these problems?” Crumpley asked.
The study stems from 2006 testing results that detected hydrocarbons in approximately 80 groundwater wells in the anticline area, according to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. Some wells have since cleared up, and eight are in the state's Voluntary Remediation Program, said Keith Guille, a department spokesman. Of those, four have been cleaned and closed, one is in active cleanup and three are under evaluation.
The study proves groundwater in the region is safe, Shell, Ultra and QEP Resources said in a joint media release.
"Industry practices are in place to protect groundwater, and this has been validated by the study," the companies said in a statement. "We will ensure that practices continue to protect groundwater into the future. We look forward to working with the BLM, DEQ, and EPA to put a final monitoring and mitigation plan in place which considers the important findings of this study."
Gamper said the low level of hydrocarbons found in wells were below drinking water standards. The hydrocarbons there did not have the chemical signature of substances used in energy production, leading researchers to conclude the contamination must be largely natural, she said.
The report gives regulators a better idea of how groundwater moves through the anticline and how it interacts with surface water. Gamper said the results would be used to develop a more refined water monitoring system than the one put in place in 2004, enabling regulators to target the contaminants that were found in the production area.
She noted that there is some work still to be done, especially in the area of well integrity.
“That is not a new issue for the oil and gas industry,” she said.
The BLM will hold a public meeting at the bureau's Pinedale field office to discuss the findings at 2:30 p.m. today.