RIVERTON - State officials said Tuesday two reports in the Pavillion area groundwater investigation would be delayed until early 2014, further angering landowners who have for years complained nearby natural gas operations contaminated their water wells. A third report will likely be delayed until after September, the initial deadline set for that study by the state, they said.
Those comments were delivered at a meeting of the Pavillion Working Group in Riverton and come after repeated delays in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigation into potential water pollution. The EPA halted its study in June following a controversy over the agency preliminary finding that gas operations polluted water supplies in the area. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission were tasked with completing the investigation, of which Tuesday’s meeting was a part.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere,” said John Fenton, chairman of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens Association, an advocacy group that has argued that gas operations and contaminated groundwater in the area are linked. “It’s what we heard at the last meeting (in August).”
Jeff Locker, a Pavillion area farmer who claims gas operations contaminated his water, said his wife and him are consulting legal counsel about the possibility of suing Encana Corp., the Canadian company that owns and operates the 130-well gas field east of Pavillion.
“Our confidence in the state is such that I don’t want them to settle the issue,” Locker said. “I’d rather sit before a judge and jury.”
Their views were hardly universal, though.
The state investigation is making good progress, said Jon Martin, a local landowner who believes the link between gas operations and groundwater contamination is false. He described Tuesday’s meeting as “positive,” saying it cleared up residents’ questions about the investigation’s process and installment of cisterns for domestic water supplies.
But he agreed the timeline for the study was dragging.
“I think they need to hasten forward with the expert issue,” he said following the meeting.
The state has yet to hire the independent experts who will review the state agencies' three reports on the subject. The OGCC is conducting two studies, one into well integrity and another into disposal pits; DEQ is completing a study of domestic water wells.
Many of the questions Tuesday focused on how those experts would be chosen.
DEQ Director Todd Parfitt said the agencies would accept public recommendations on experts, but “ultimately the agencies are going to have to make a decision on who they are going to select, and provide that information to the public.”
Grant Black, state oil and gas supervisor, said his department had received nine recommendations for experts on the well-bore study and none for the disposal pit investigation. Qualifications sought by the commission include a background in petroleum engineering, industry and academic experience, regional expertise and a lack of connection to the interested parties.
“I think the biggest challenge is finding the expert that has the knowledge and meets the criteria,” Black said in an interview following the meeting.
The two OGCC reports were due by the end of December, said Jerimiah Rieman, policy adviser to Gov. Matt Mead, to the Star-Tribune last week.
Black said drafts of both studies should be completed by year’s end while final versions should be done by February. The release of the DEQ report into water quality meanwhile will likely be after September given an early winter this year and the delays in OGCC’s investigation, Parfitt said.
In a separate development, work on a water storage facility in Pavillion has begun, state officials said. The facility is a part of state efforts to truck in drinking water to Pavillion area residents. Installations of cisterns at residents’ homes should begin the second week of December, weather permitting, they said.