A Pavillion couple has reached a settlement with Encana Corp. over contaminated groundwater in the central Wyoming gas field where they live.
The confidential agreement marks an end to the last legal battle in the debate over whether development of the Pavillion gas field polluted the water outside of a tiny town on the Wind River Reservation.
Jeff and Rhonda Locker brought the suit against Encana in 2014, arguing that the firm polluted their water and then lied about it. The company has robustly denied the allegations.
The Lockers said the settlement does not mean the water pollution is resolved for local residents.
“We’re still working to solve the problem out here,” Jeff Locker said. “Just because we got a settlement don’t mean the contamination and the issues have gone away.”
A lawyer for the family said the settlement, brokered by former governor Mike Sullivan, was encouragingly amicable. All parties were “respectful” of one another, he said.
An Encana spokesman said he could not comment on the case and directed questions regarding ongoing reclamation and water testing in the Pavillion area to state regulators.
A tiny town’s big controversy
Pavillion garnered national attention after the Environmental Protection Agency published a draft report in 2011 linking contamination of shallow-depth water wells with wastewater pits.
The report also linked hydraulic fracturing to pollution of the drinking water aquifer, suggesting that well casing inadequacies and fracking had allowed contaminates from frack fluids to migrate up into the water.
Fracking was unleashing a boom of activity in the oil and gas fields in Wyoming and across the country at the time. It is a common practice today for most wells drilled in the state and has allowed companies to reach previously inaccessible oil and gas deposits.
The EPA report was ill-received in Wyoming.
Gov. Matt Mead said in an interview with the Star-Tribune at the time that the federal results were premature.
“We need to be led by sound science, and whatever that may be, we will accept,” Mead told the Star-Tribune in 2012.
A public records request by the Star Tribune returned 56,000 documents including evidence of political pressure on the EPA to step aside. The agency never published its final report.
Wyoming regulators took over the EPA’s investigation in 2013, narrowing its scope. The state said its approach, which included less field study, was more systematic. Encana donated $1 million to provide water cisterns to impacted residents and fund the state study.
A final report from state regulators published in 2016 disputed the EPA’s findings. It said that without baseline water testing prior to oil and gas activities, contaminants found in well water could not be directly linked to industry. It criticized some of the practices by EPA used in its determination, like the materials used in EPA’s own monitoring wells.
The unpalatable drinking water outside the town of Pavillion may be a result of existing contaminants and naturally occurring substances, according to the state.
The former lead investigator of the EPA study in Pavillion, Dominic DiGiulio, published an independent report in collaboration with Stanford University doubling down on EPA’s conclusions that oil and gas operations polluted the aquifer.
Moving forward in Pavillion
Local landowners, and the landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council, believe the Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation was sound and the state’s determination inadequate.
They continue to push for remediation in the area as Encana and regulators proceed with plugging wells. The Resource Council and the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens recently noted corroded casing and high pressure in the wells being plugged in letters to the Bureau of Land Management and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
“We’re happy if the Lockers reached a settlement that makes them whole,” said Jill Morrison of the PRBRC. “But the state still has obligations. Encana still has obligations, and we are working on those.”
Morrison said residents are aware of slime in their water that landowner-hired experts say is feeding off of methane gas.
A series of new water quality tests carried out by the Department of Environmental Quality last year should be available in late February, a spokesman for the department said Wednesday.
Wyoming regulators from the Department of Environmental Quality and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission continue to work in the Pavillion area.
The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has never fined Encana for the issues found in investigating Pavillion’s water contamination.
A spokesman for the commission said the company did not violate state rules.
“Well integrity and cementing issues are usually a result of older wells that were drilled and completed using the best practices at the time and in accordance with our rules at the time, said Kimberly Mazza in an email. “These issues, if they occur, can be remediated.”
The commission changed its water testing rules in 2015. It now requires companies to do water sampling before and after oil and gas operations.
Locker said the baseline water testing was one step forward for the state, and that he hoped Wyoming had learned from what happened to Pavillion.
Wyoming needs to be “forward thinking” in regard to its regulations, he said, noting landowner water concerns in Laramie County where companies have recently applied for water injection wells.
“Hopefully, the state will dig in the heels and say, ‘We are going to look out for our citizens. We don’t want this to happen.’”
Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner
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