A Wyoming family won the right to call one of Gov. Matt Mead’s advisers to provide evidence in its case alleging that a gas company polluted groundwater and then lied about it.
U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson’s decision Wednesday calls for former Mead policy adviser Jerimiah Rieman to testify under oath regarding the natural gas company’s involvement in a state report that hydraulic fracturing and disposal pits could not be linked to water contamination in the Pavillion gas field.
Encana Corp. executive Lemuel Smith will also be deposed. He cooperated with Rieman on the state’s investigation, according to court documents.
The small legal victory for Jeff and Rhonda Locker of Pavillion continues a lingering saga in Wyoming over whether fracking and other operations polluted groundwater. That question led to opposing reports from state regulators and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Federal investigators said in 2011 that gas operations had contaminated groundwater. They cautioned locals about drinking water from nearby wells.
The findings drew a handful of neighbors from a small town on the Wind River Reservation into a national debate over potential risks of hydraulic fracturing, now a common drilling practice.
The state took over the investigation in 2013. Encana provided Wyoming $1.5 million for the study.
State regulators concluded that the unpalatable drinking water in the Pavillion area could not be tied to oil and gas operations. The bad taste was likely due to existing naturally occurring minerals and compounds in the water, they determined. Without pre-drilling sampling, the state said it could not link contaminants to operations.
Court documents show that Rieman, who now leads the governor’s economic development initiative ENDOW, played a pivotal role in moving the investigation from federal to state control. The Lockers’ attorneys are seeking information on how much influence Encana then had over the state’s study.
Encana denies the Lockers’ claims and had fought the depositions, arguing that Rieman was protected from subpoena by the state constitution. The Encana executive, meanwhile, did not have extensive knowledge of the various Pavillion studies, having joined the company after original investigations, they said.
In the opinion filed Wednesday, the judge ruled the Lockers had the right to introduce evidence backing up a claim of bias due to Encana’s funding of the Pavillion investigation.
Deposition of Rieman will be limited to information that cannot otherwise be gleaned from the copious court documents already in the record, the judge wrote.
A spokesman for Encana declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. Mead’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The lead investigator in the EPA’s report, Dominic DiGiulio, criticized the state’s investigation after leaving the agency. He published a subsequent study with Stanford University again linking Encana’s activities with polluted groundwater.
State regulators have repeatedly stood by their investigator’s work and their report’s findings.