GILLETTE - An elderly couple in their longtime ranch home on the Powder River in northeast Wyoming has lived without running water for more than a year, measuring basic household functions by each milk-jug gallon they collect from their neighbors up the road.
Eight jugs to take a bath.
Three to flush the toilet.
Roland and Beverly Landry cannot afford the $30,000-plus cost to replace their artesian well that stopped flowing one day in September 2002.
So, over the holiday weekend an ad hoc team of secret Santas with a drilling rig, cement truck, water trucks and other support equipment will gather at the Landry's home to drill a new water well.
OK, hold that picture for just a moment.
This is where a typical Christmas story begins to gush glad tidings and those ubiquitous goodwill feelings of the holiday season. This isn't one of those stories.
Yes, the goodwill of the men and women behind the new well is genuine. And that is a good Christmas story.
But, according to state regulators involved in the case, the secrecy of these roughneck Santas is admittedly less a function of modesty than of fear. Fear of implying liability. Fear of setting a precedent. Fear that the public might view the act as an admission that the coalbed methane gas industry has done something wrong.
"If a company or an individual involved in trying to help these people with this well were named, there would be those who would perceive them as being guilty of something," said Casper geologist Jimmy Goolsby of Goolsby & Associates.
The Powder River Basin's thick coals have been the target of methane gas drillers for many years, and the development was moving down the Powder River valley when the Landry's artesian well stopped flowing. To produce methane from coal, water is pumped from the coal aquifer. Residential water wells - artesian or otherwise - that are tapped into a coal seam are affected when gas wells "de-water" the coals nearby.
When this happens, the coalbed methane producer responsible will replace the well, usually by drilling a well deeper than the coal.
But with the Landry's well, the evidence wasn't clear enough for the State Engineers Office to determine exactly why the well stopped flowing. Marathon Oil performed a test on the well and determined it wasn't responsible, noting that the nearest coalbed methane gas well at the time was almost five miles away.
"The possibility of any sort of reduction of pressure caused by coalbed methane activity affecting that well under the geological circumstances at play here is nil," Goolsby said.
There are others who disagree, including Beverly and Rolan Landry. The couple maintains that it was not a coincidence that their artesian well stopped flowing just as coalbed methane wells were beginning to be punched in the valley. Beverly Landry said their well had flowed steadily for 30 years. The flow didn't slowly dwindle to nothing. It stopped abruptly one day.
Their artesian well is tapped into a sand aquifer above the coal, according to reports. However, coal aquifers do communicate with overlying and underlying aquifers in some areas.
And the Landrys are not the first to lose an artesian water well. About a dozen artesian wells have stopped flowing within the coalbed methane development area, according to the Powder River Basin Resource Council. In fact, one reason the Landry well became such a high-profile case is because a Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission inspector said in an in-house e-mail to his supervisor he believed the coalbed methane industry was responsible for the Landry well and others that had stopped flowing.
When the Powder River Basin Resource Council found the e-mail in files at the State Engineers Office, it was widely circulated among ranchers in the area.
In the end, the geological debate was left unsettled in the eyes of the State Engineers Office.
And it's just as well, Goolsby said, because the geological debate is only secondary.
Public perception rules instead.
"I believe we've gotten some bum raps out there," Goolsby said. "I think it would be better for any company or any individual to just remain nameless for their own good."
Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council said she disagrees with the notion that the coalbed methane industry is getting an undeserved rap on the head over the Landry well case.
"I think it probably is public perception that they are responsible," Morrison said. "It is common knowledge throughout the basin that when you start dewatering and depressurizing the coals," artesian wells stop flowing, she said. "People are losing artesian wells all over the place.
"The public perception of industry would be much better if the industry would own up to their responsibilities and treat people right and do the right thing," Morrison said.
This did start out as a Christmas story, right? Well, it is a Christmas story. A true Christmas story.
According to the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the Landrys are going to get a new water well.
Commission Director Don Likwartz said plans are in place to drill the well on the weekend after Christmas.
Don't let the history behind this new well diminish the genuine kindness of the people donating their time, labor and equipment needed to give the Landrys running water again. For all the disagreement over the Landry's water well, there is total agreement that the couple should not have to live without running water.
"I don't know how we could ever repay all of that kindness," said Beverly Landry.
The cost of the new well is expected to be $30,000 or more.
Likwartz said that when he heard about the Landry's situation, he began an effort to get coalbed methane companies to pool together enough money for a new well.
Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, got involved and an account was set up at a bank in Buffalo. Schiffer pitched in the first $500. Early this month, the account was up to $12,000, Likwartz said. The donations came from four operators. Several more companies have agreed to donate time, labor and equipment to the effort.
"I just wish it hadn't taken this long," Likwartz said.
Likwartz said none of the companies want to be identified.
"You're not going to get any of these people to talk," Likwartz said.
Beverly Landry said she didn't know about plans to drill a new water well.
"We'll be satisfied with whatever we get," Landry said.
She said she believes it ought to be the coalbed methane production companies that pay for the well rather than relying on smaller service companies - with their notably smaller budgets - to donate their limited resources, too.
"This is just an individual with a little company that has a drilling rig of his own. The company that offered the concrete was the same," Landry said. "I didn't want to have to take charity from somebody who wasn't involved."
But those are her Secret Santas all the same.
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