The head of the Environmental Protection Agency says high levels of methane, benzene and chemicals found in two Wyoming water-monitoring wells are “of concern” and said hydraulic fracturing may be responsible.
In an interview set to air on the Bloomberg cable news channel Saturday and Sunday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the agency discussed results from two monitoring wells in the Pavillion area with state and local officials. The well data was released to the public last week.
“It is possible that fracking in one bearing zone may have impacted nearby areas that may contain some groundwater,” she said in an interview for the EnergyNOW! program, a portion of which was obtained exclusively by the Star-Tribune.
Jackson’s comments marked the first time she has raised a possible link between the oil and gas industry practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, with drinking-water pollution in the area.
A spokesman for Calgary, Alberta-based Encana Corp., the company that operates the natural gas field in the Pavillion area, disputed Jackson’s comments.
The EPA results aren’t surprising because the agency drilled its two wells into a known natural gas production zone, said Encana spokesman Doug Hock. He said the complex geology underlying the area includes gas-bearing zones that are close to underground areas that contain water.
“The science remains inconclusive, in terms of data, impact and source,” he said.
The EPA collected the groundwater data as part of a Superfund investigation into drinking water quality in the Pavillion area. The agency expects to release a final report by next spring.
John Fenton, a Pavillion rancher and member of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, said Jackson’s comments define fears local residents have had for years — that energy development has hurt their drinking water.
“It took courage for her to say that, because that’s a bold statement,” he said. “People that live with it on a daily basis, we’ve been waiting for someone in her position to say that.”
But he took issue with her claim that there were no ongoing health concerns, despite Encana Corp.’s provision of drinking water to some of the residents with polluted wells.
Residents still shower in the water and give it to cattle raised for human consumption, Fenton said.
“All of those concerns are not addressed by five gallons of drinking water,” he said. “I’m not ungrateful for the drinking water, but it only touches on a portion of the concern.”
While there’s still no conclusive evidence that indicates what is harming water in the area, residents have long complained that development in the area, particularly drilling in recent decades, is responsible for polluting their water and hurting their health.
Environmental groups have blamed the pollution on fracking, in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to fracture open pathways for oil and gas.
State officials, Encana Corp. and others are currently examining the integrity of well bores in the area, and reviewing pits in the area used to hold mud or drilling fluids that could be responsible for contaminating water.
The EPA tested 17 private water wells last year, found pollutants and hydrocarbons, and recommended residents ventilate their bathrooms while showering or bathing and not drink water from the wells or use it for cooking. The agency later drilled deep monitoring wells and collected data from those and 42 private wells.
The well results revealed by the EPA to Pavillion area residents on Nov. 9 showed some wells contained 50 times the EPA level of the carcinogen benzene, as well as elevated levels of diesel- and gasoline-grade organic compounds.
The agency also found the chemical 2-butoxyethanol phosphate in nine wells and methane in 10 wells, according to the agency’s presentation.
The agency’s scientists are analyzing the data, and will submit the results to a panel of independent scientists for review before opening the agency’s conclusions to public comment, EPA spokesman Rich Mylott said in an emailed statement.
“In the next weeks, we hope to hear from community, the tribes, the state and Encana about their initial thoughts on the data,” Mylott said. “Meanwhile, we will complete the report and share it with the Pavillion community and the public soon.”
Encana Corp. is selling the Pavillion gas field to Midland, Texas-based Legacy Reserves. The two companies are still on schedule to close the $45 million deal on Dec. 1, Hock said.