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PAVILLION -- In 2012, as a national debate raged over a possible link between fracked natural gas wells and contaminated drinking water east of Pavillion, Gov. Matt Mead issued repeated calls for more scientific study.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had released a draft report the year prior tentatively tying the bad water in some wells to nearby natural gas operations. The governor called the agency’s findings premature and said more work was needed before such a conclusion could be proven.

“We need to be led by sound science, and whatever that may be, we will accept,” Mead told the Star-Tribune in 2012.

EPA ultimately turned over its investigation to the state in 2013 following a hail of criticism from Wyoming regulators, congressional Republicans and industry representatives.

But two years into the state investigation, little more is known about the source of the pollution.

Interviews with officials involved with the investigation and more than 56,000 documents obtained by the Star-Tribune in a Freedom of Information Act request show a steady erosion in the scope of the Pavillion inquiry. The findings reveal an EPA worried it could not defend its Pavillion study against an onslaught of criticism. Rather than pursuing the study further and risking a defeat at the hands of its critics, the EPA chose to turn over the investigation to the state. Wyoming has conducted a narrower investigation in the two years since.

Two studies since completed by Wyoming regulators, one into the integrity of Pavillion's gas wells and another into its disposal pits, involved little fieldwork. Both were largely based around reviews of state and federal records, as well as existing scientific analysis. Neither reached a firm conclusion and both called for more study. A third examination into the quality of 13 domestic water wells is due out sometime this month.

Most important, Wyoming regulators have yet to install the groundwater monitoring wells the Department of Environmental Quality once proposed, even though industry experts say they are crucial to identifying the source of pollution.

State officials say Wyoming ultimately chose a more systematic approach. Monitoring wells are expensive to install, and there is no guarantee they would produce an answer. Better, they figured, to conduct a study of other factors that would help focus the state’s inquiry.

When the state took over the study, little work had been done to understand the integrity of Pavillion’s gas wells and the disposal pits where drilling waste had been stored over decades of operations, said Kevin Frederick, the head of the department’s water quality division.

“I think that was a critical step that needed to be completed to help really guide any further work we would be suggesting,” he said.

Yet some experts take a different point of view. The data from water samples lacks context without monitoring wells, said Robert Jackson, a professor of environmental earth science at Stanford University.

“If someone told me they wanted to be systematic about this study, I’d want them to use the monitoring wells to provide information on the chemistry and flow of the groundwater around the houses,” Jackson said. “Without monitoring wells, they’re unlikely to ever get to the bottom of this.”

As the years tick by, and conditions on the ground change, regulators are less likely to determine the source of contamination, he added.

Sue Spencer, a professional geologist at Weston Groundwater Engineering in Laramie, noted controversy had long lingered around the monitoring wells EPA had used to reach its initial conclusions. An industry-backed study released five days after EPA relinquished its investigation found the agency could have introduced the contaminants during the construction of its monitoring wells.

Spencer feels those concerns are overblown but said if people are worried about the construction of EPA’s monitoring wells, then more should be drilled.

“Normally, if you find this kind of contamination, you don’t ignore the well and not go back and sample it,” said Spencer, who has reviewed many of the scientific analyses into Pavillion’s groundwater on behalf of a couple suing the natural gas operator, Encana Corp. “No one has talked about putting in more deeper monitoring wells, which is weird because for most investigations I’ve worked on that’s the starting point.”

Some landowners aren't waiting for the state to find answers. The couple suing Encana, Jeff and Rhonda Locker, allege the company withheld information about the quality of their water and argue it ultimately led to a decline in Rhonda Locker’s health. Her doctor reported a deterioration in her cognitive abilities in 2014, noting her symptoms did not seem consistent with her medical history.

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Pavillion

Rhonda Locker walks beside a creek running behind the family's former home Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Pavillion. "We were very active and we're just not anymore," she said. "Medication is what keeps me going now."

Encana rejects any suggestion of wrongdoing and says it is committed to finding the source of contamination. The Calgary-based company notes it contributed $1.5 million to help pay for the cost of the state’s study.

The suit underlines the lingering truth about Pavillion. More than a decade since concerns about the area’s groundwater were raised and four years after EPA’s findings briefly thrust this community of roughly 230 people in the national spotlight, much remains unresolved.

***

A collection of residents east of Pavillion had for years been complaining about the quality of their water when the EPA opened its investigation in 2008.

The Lockers, for instance, noticed a nearly tenfold increase of total dissolved solids in their water between 1988 and 1992, water tests conducted by the couple show. In the ensuing years the couple’s water would often turn black when operations picked up at one of the gas wells near their home. Though their suspicions had been aroused, the Lockers say they still did not believe oil and gas was responsible.

In 2003, the couple signed a $21,500 settlement agreement with the owner of the wells at the time, Tom Brown Inc., court filings show. The Lockers agreed not to sue in the future and used the money to buy a water filter. Tom Brown, which was later bought by Encana, said it had conducted water quality tests and looked for a possible link between its gas wells and the couple’s water well. It found nothing alarming.

Alarm bells did begin ringing in 2010 when the EPA sent a letter to the Lockers and other residents warning that dangerously high levels of pollution had been detected in their water. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recommended finding another source of drinking water, the letter noted, and suggested they open the window of the bathroom while showering to prevent methane from building up.

Drilling in shale plays across the U.S. was already accelerating at a rapid clip by then. The increase was fueled in part by improved fracking techniques. The practice of injecting water, sand and chemicals into wells at high pressure was helping companies unlock previously inaccessible reservoirs of oil and gas.

And so when EPA released its draft report a year later, it sent Pavillion rocketing to the fore of a national debate over fracking’s safety.

Environmentalists seized on the EPA’s findings as evidence fracking could contaminate groundwater and called for more stringent oversight of the practice. Pavillion was featured in Gasland, an Academy Award-nominated documentary about the dangers of fracking.

A 2013 investigation by Energy and Environment News found officials at the White House were monitoring the debate. 

And industry groups, Wyoming regulators and congressional Republicans, sensing the study could imperil drilling elsewhere, blasted the investigation. They raised concerns over how it had been conducted and noted the U.S. Geological Survey couldn’t replicate EPA’s results. U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, called Pavillion part of a wider EPA campaign to “crucify” American energy producers.

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Cattle graze a field on the Lockers' property Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, in Pavillion. The irrigated valley east of the Wind River Range has been a hotbed of debate for years now, following allegations that fracked natural gas wells dotting the landscape contributed to the contamination of residents' water wells.

But this tiny community of irrigated farm fields and arid hills was ill suited for its starring role in the national referendum on fracking, experts say.

Pavillion’s geology is unique. The Wind River formation, which underlies the community, holds the somewhat dubious distinction of producing both potable water and natural gas. Unlike gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania and Texas, which often travel thousands of feet beneath the surface, Pavillion’s wells were shallow, often reaching only 800 to 900 feet.

Then there was the matter of the field’s age. Natural gas wells were first drilled here in the 1960s. The field is home to many old wells, some poorly constructed, and 92 disposal pits, the older of which were unlined. Even if the contamination could be linked to oil and gas operations, shoddily constructed wells or disposal pits were as likely a cause as fracking, experts said.

“Pavillion is a hard place to try and isolate a cause for a chemical arriving in someone’s water,” said Jackson, the Stanford professor.

***

Such technicalities mattered little, however. By 2012 the battle lines of the political debate had been drawn.

“Now we are at the point where many, including some at EPA, have rushed to conclusions and raised the specters of cracked earth and these conclusions are not supported by available evidence,” Mead wrote in December 2011 to then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

EPA knew it was on a “collision course” with Encana and Wyoming, said Robert Sussman, who was senior policy counsel to Lisa Jackson at the time. The agency knew more work was needed to prove its preliminary conclusions, but additional study would have been expensive and time-consuming, he said.

EPA concluded it would be more likely to obtain answers if it persuaded Wyoming and Encana to assume some responsibility for the investigation. And with EPA engaged in a national fracking study, officials felt it prudent to direct their limited resources elsewhere, Sussman said.

“We understood the (Pavillion) study was not the be-all and end-all and more work would have to be done. There were just serious issues, technical issues about the study,” said Sussman, who is now retired from EPA and works as a consultant in Washington, D.C. “We could spend the next couple of years fighting about the study. Maybe we would win, maybe we would not. We figured staying in this confrontational mode was not going to produce any solutions.”

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Workers for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency test a monitoring well near Pavillion for contaminants in December 2010. The state said Thursday a new report doubles down on initial reports that fracking did not cause Pavillion water pollution.

At first, EPA agreed to conduct an additional round of water sampling with the U.S. Geological Survey to strengthen its findings. It extended the public comment period on its draft report. And while acknowledging more study was needed, the agency publicly defended the work of its scientists.

“I am concerned that your letters do not recognize the rigorous, transparent and objective approach that has marked our involvement at Pavillion to date,” Jackson wrote in a reply to the governor’s concerns.

Mead, meanwhile, continued to press publicly for more study. State regulators heeded his call. In 2012, DEQ floated an internal proposal to lower cameras into water wells, test their water quality and install monitoring wells in areas where hazardous pollutants like methane, benzene and toluene had been detected.

The plan, marked deliberative and never disclosed publicly, was floated a second time in 2013.

But by early 2013, emails show EPA, Wyoming and Encana were already headed in a different direction. The three parties were by that time deep in negotiations over transferring the investigation to the state.

Jerimiah Rieman, Mead’s natural resource policy advisor, wrote two high-ranking EPA officials on March 1 that year outlining what would become the guiding agreement for the state’s takeover of the Pavillion study.

The plan called for an investigation of the integrity of the Pavillion gas wells and an additional round of water sampling.

On May 9, Lem Smith, Encana’s governmental affairs director, wrote an email to Sussman about an upcoming meeting between the parties in Denver.

“I feel very positive about where we are and what we might accomplish,” Smith said.

“Likewise feeling positive,” Sussman replied in an email dated 12:30 a.m. the next day.

Almost one month later, the key parts of the outline proposed by Rieman in March were formally adopted. Wyoming would lead the study, Encana would contribute $1.5 million to help cover the costs and EPA would assume an advisory role.

The final agreement added a review of the gas field's disposal pits to the original outline. 

But it notably placed little emphasis on field work. It did call for additional water sampling. However, the pit and well integrity studies largely entailed a review of existing records. Those analyses would determine whether more field work was needed.  

And when drafts of the two reports appeared last year, that is exactly what they entailed. 

A draft of the state's well integrity study released in August of 2014 noted five of the 50 wells examined underwent mechanical integrity tests, which are used to determine if wells were properly constructed and maintained. It recommended all 50 wells should be tested and suggested the state should install groundwater monitoring wells. 

The pit study entailed a review of state, federal and company records to determine where more study was needed. It recommended taking soil and groundwater samples at 20 pits. 

A year later neither report has been finalized. 

***

Rieman called suggestions that the state had narrowed its focus “premature.” DEQ is set to release a comprehensive analysis of water sampling at 13 domestic water wells in the coming weeks, he noted. The report will incorporate those findings with an examination of the earlier studies on well integrity and pits.

And he strongly refuted the notion Wyoming officials had not acted with urgency to address the situation. Earlier on, the state recognized Pavillion presented a potential public health risk, Rieman said. The state ultimately secured an agreement for Encana to provide bottled water to residents and later appropriated $750,000 for cisterns to be installed at residences where homeowners were worried about water quality.

Those moves meant people were no longer drinking or showering in potentially tainted water and bought Wyoming time to conduct a comprehensive study, Rieman said.

DEQ’s investigation has taken two years to release, in part because all parties agreed to an independent, third-party review of the report’s draft findings, he said.

“My answer would be yes,” Rieman said when asked if Wyoming has done all it could to date. “We have an agreement between the EPA and the state of Wyoming on an appropriate investigation.”

The DEQ proposal to drill monitoring wells was made at a time when debate over Pavillion was raging, Rieman said. State officials felt like EPA had abandoned what had been a collaborative investigation with the state, effectively jumping to conclusions before all the evidence had been acquired.

And so while Wyoming officials criticized the agency publicly, they internally asked DEQ to assemble a plan for what a state investigation might look like.

The resulting study, titled “Phase VI: Short-term Investigation of Groundwater Quality in the Pavillion, WY Area,” represented a look at what might be done if resources were not an issue, Rieman said.

Yet resources were a consideration. John Wagner, then the head of DEQ’s water quality division, cautioned that many of the proposals outlined in the draft were expensive and might not produce an answer, Rieman said.

The plan’s total cost is estimated in documents at $3.1 million. Most of that, $2.4 million, was for installation of monitoring wells. Rieman said he remembered the price being many times in excess of that.

The state has often faced criticism that Encana, with its $1.5 million contribution, had bought a less rigorous study. In 2012, the company was Wyoming’s second-largest natural gas producer by volume, and the $840 million it paid in taxes ranked third in the state – behind only Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. The Calgary-based firm has since sold all of its Wyoming assets except Pavillion, which is a relatively small field.

Rieman rejected criticism that the state might have completed a less rigorous study at the company’s behest.

“Encana provided the money to the state and bought nothing with it. They get no additional insight into the investigation and its findings,” Rieman said. “We didn’t absolve them of anything by giving that money.”

The company, which has also batted aside those suggestions, noted in an email responding to questions from the Star-Tribune that EPA turned over its investigation to Wyoming without finalizing its draft report. The statement said Encana made a grant of the $1.5 million in light of “palatability concerns and ongoing efforts in Pavillion.” At the same time, the company is working to promote the best practices that support and protect rural water supplies, it said.

***

The Lockers, meanwhile, have grown increasingly concerned about Rhonda Locker’s health. Her doctors observed a waning attention span, difficulty summoning words quickly and forgetfulness. 

Her test results were not consistent with her history, one doctor wrote in 2014, saying the now 54-year-old Pavillion resident’s ailments “are more likely the result of the odd physical and cognitive problems she is reporting.”

Locker, in an interview, tearfully described the condition's affect on her life. The executive director of Help for Health Hospice in Riverton, she has done less with her grandchildren than she would have liked because she often lacks the energy, Locker said.

“It changes your personality. It changes your dreams. It changes what you have. It changes sometimes your marriage for a while because you aren’t who you were,” she said.

Her husband, Jeff, nodded solemnly nearby and then turned his attention to the state’s investigation.

“They need to understand the Constitution was written to protect the rights of the individual,” he said. “They’ve sort of dropped the ball on this one.”

The Lockers' lawsuit revolves around the settlement agreement they signed with Tom Brown in 2003. They claim the company never completed the testing it agreed to under that deal. To support their claim, they provided an affidavit from Paul Taucher, a consultant who was hired by Tom Brown, to examine their well.

Taucher said he completed a preliminary investigation and was prepared to go further.

“I was not asked by anyone, including representatives of TBI, to perform a detailed and comprehensive review of the hydrogeology in the area of the Lockers’ water well nor to prepare a report on this subject,” Taucher said in his statement.

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Jeff Locker stands inside an outbuilding built to house the family's reverse osmosis water filtration system Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, at the family's former home in Pavillion. The Lockers negotiated with Encana Corp. to install the system as Rhonda Locker's health began to decline, and eventually began hauling water in from town to fill a 4,000-gallon cistern system on their property, completely abandoning the former dairy farm's well that Jeff says had "excellent" water when they bought and refinanced the home in the 1980s.

Encana is seeking to have the case dismissed. In court filings, it says the Lockers are barred from suing by the terms of the settlement. The company contends the statute of limitations has run out on the Lockers’ charge of fraud.

It is unclear if any other studies were done before the settlement’s signing. The company did not respond to a question about the subject. Instead the company said in its statement, “There’s no evidence that oil and gas activity impacted the Lockers’ well” and noted Encana was waiting for the results of Wyoming’s study.

The tone of the company’s court filings are even more strident. The Lockers are on a “fishing expedition,” Encana’s lawyers wrote in response to the couple’s request for additional documentation, “in search of evidence to support a fanciful and totally unsubstantiated theory that Encana has been concealing and manipulating information for decades in Pavillion Field and has corrupted federal and State of Wyoming employees and elected officials at the highest level of government in the process.”

For experts like Stanford professor Robert Jackson, the case highlights the perils of an incomplete investigation. Pavillion is one of three fracking cases -- the others are in Pennsylvania and Texas -- EPA has dropped, he noted. The agency’s national fracking study, the draft of which found no evidence between water contamination and well completions, is now in peer review.

Still, questions linger over industry and landowners. Companies are plagued by public suspicion that their practices are unsafe. Environmentalists and landowners are nagged by the feeling government regulators are protecting industry at the public’s expense.

“By not resolving these cases we allow them to fester,” Jackson said.

But answers could still be in Pavillion, he added. DEQ's draft study provided a map to find them.

Regulators just need to follow it.

Follow energy reporter Benjamin Storrow on Twitter @bstorrow.

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