Jon Martin’s letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is worn and folded in thirds, its words underlined with a pink highlighter past its prime.
The letter, water well testing results, should be Martin’s ticket to retirement — proof his water is fine and his land and home east of Pavillion worth selling.
Yet potential buyer after potential buyer have turned away because of the town’s reputation, now stained with international perceptions of polluted water and environmental conflict.
“Everybody who walked in my door would say, ‘Tell me about your water,’” Martin said. “I would let them read that EPA letter, but it didn’t seem to make any difference because of the perception that’s out there, that the water in Pavillion is bad. Period.
“That’s the perception, but it’s not the truth.”
The town and surrounding area in west-central Wyoming, home to only a few hundred people, has found itself the center of global attention after several residents living in a natural gas field outside the town said they feared nearby gas wells had ruined their well water.
The area is now stuck with a reputation for water gone bad because of energy development. That reputation has driven away customers and land buyers, hindered loan financing and driven a wedge between neighbors.
While those with concerns continue their quest to find out why their water is bad, some of their neighbors are fed up with the negative publicity and the damage done.
“We were quiet too long,” said Martin, sitting at neighbor Steve Hugus’ table.
Glasses of water from Hugus’ well sparkle in the sunlight splashed over his wooden kitchen table from a nearby window.
Martin shakes his head.
“We just thought the story would go away. And it didn’t.”
Caught in the middle
For many in the United States and around the world, Pavillion is the center of the fight over the value and potential danger of the oil and natural gas industry practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Operators use fracking in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to break open pathways for trapped oil and gas to flow to the surface.
The practice sparked a drilling boom in several parts of the U.S., as operators found they could use fracking to access hard-to-get oil and gas.
But the expanding use of fracking and the resulting boom sparked deep concern among environmentalists and many landowners who worried the practice and the development it supported could pollute groundwater.
Yet relatively little evidence has surfaced that fracking damages water. To many in the industry, the lack of evidence proves fracking is safe. To those concerned about the practice, the lack of evidence demands investigation.
While a number of such investigations are underway, the examination of Pavillion water is further along than most.
After several rounds of tests, the EPA released a draft report in December that tentatively linked fracking to contaminants it found in a number of water wells amid the natural gas field outside Pavillion.
While industry officials disputed the agency’s claim, media outlets around the world carried the story, indelibly linking the town’s name with contaminated water.
Martin, Hugus and Ginny Warren, owner of a Pavillion restaurant, say they heard from relatives from across the U.S. and from Sweden, asking about their water.
Even for those who live closer to Pavillion, the headlines and news coverage have made the town’s name synonymous with bad water.
“They hear Pavillion and they think of our little bitty group of houses over here,” Warren said during a quick visit to Hugus’ home. ‘They don’t think eight miles out here in the country.”
‘A red flag’
Later that day in Pavillion, Warren moves as if she has barely has a moment to spare.
Warren, the owner of Miss Ginny’s Roost in Pavillion and a Hurricane Katrina refugee from the Gulf Coast, is scrambling to assemble a Fat Tuesday evening feast to mark the end of Mardi Gras.
The pecan pies are done and delicious, sitting on the bar. A plastic tub holding Mardi Gras masks sits nearby, ready to adorn the wait staff.
Miss Ginny, as she is known, is in back whipping up lemon cloud tarts, surrounded by bowls and refrigerators and spices.
Shrimp nearby are bound for boiling. She’s snuck small meat pies in the oven for two visiting journalists, and Warren is short on time to prepare a menu that springs from her love of Cajun cuisine.
“I just cook my favorite stuff and hopefully they’ll like it too and come back,” she says, pausing a moment to readjust a strand of blonde hair. “They usually do.”
But some of her customers have shied away from the restaurant because of their perceptions about the town’s water.
Business is down 60 percent from 2010 and Mardi Gras reservations have slipped despite a lot of advertising, she said.
Warren said canceled Christmas reservations shook her quiet belief she should stay out of the business of those with water complaints, some of whom eat at her restaurant.
“Our folks that are coming have heard about Pavillion water, and they just don’t feel comfortable,” she said. “That’s when I kinda went, ‘Whoa, wait a minute.’”
Now it’s her business, too.
A salesman from Dubois tried to sell her a water filter to display prominently in her dining room as proof the water was fit to drink.
But Warren couldn’t stomach the quiet admission her municipal system water, certified clean to drink, could hurt customers if it wasn’t publicly filtered.
“It’s like waving a red flag if they’re one out of 10,000 people who haven’t heard the story of Pavillion water,” she said.
Loan troubles strike
Such a water filter isn’t the only red flag waving in the area, driving people away.
Martin’s son Josh wanted to buy some land just south of Pavillion and got an appraisal while seeking bank financing.
But around the turn of the year, the appraiser flagged the property and listed media reports of bad water in the area, the EPA’s draft report, and some locals upset with energy development-caused water contamination.
All true, but all red flags for loan underwriters.
“That’s what lit a fire under me,” he said.
That appraiser’s note, and another similarly noted appraisal made underwriters think twice about making the loan, said Julie Buller, vice president at First Interstate Bank in Riverton.
In a Jan. 17 letter to Gov. Matt Mead, Buller said such flags force loan financers to consider such properties case by case basis, endangering the chances of financing.
“First Interstate Bank has many loans on our books, not only residential loans but farm/agriculture loans as well,” Buller wrote the governor. “If property values deteriorate in the Pavillion area, this will make lending in this area very difficult and very limited.”
While Martin disputed the appraiser’s flag of the property and the way the issues were described, both Buller and a Riverton-based real estate broker said the appraiser, whom they wouldn’t name, was just doing his job.
“I think he felt if he said nothing, he would be negligent, and if he says something, he would anger a lot of people,” said Lynda Solon, associate broker at Wind River Realty. “He’s in a hard spot, too.”
Buller said the appraiser has since decided not to perform appraisals in the Pavilion area.
Meanwhile, Steve Hugus needed to sell some land. So it was good news when he got a phone call from a possible buyer in Alaska.
But the man said he’d been reading about the water problems and wanted to know how close Hugus’ land was to the wells with bad water.
Hugus told the truth: He shares a fence line with a resident who complains of bad water. That made the decision easy for the buyer.
“He said, ‘Oh, well, I’m not interested,’” Hugus said.
That negative perception and lack of market can harm a community, said Kristin Paulsen, manager of County Title Inc. in Riverton and chairwoman of the Fremont County Planning Commission.
“Instead of that guy doing his own research, it’s normal to believe what you see on TV, or read in the newspaper, or hear on the radio,” she said. “I don’t think you get 100 percent of the story. If all they’ve heard is the negative, and they haven’t done the research to know if it’s true or isn’t ...”
Wyoming legislators are considering funding for cisterns in the area. The cisterns would store clean water for those with bad wells and could go a long way toward convincing underwriters to sign off on financing, Buller said.
Even with the cisterns, marketing could be a problem as long as the perception of bad water resonates with buyers, said Buller and Paulsen. Still, there may be some value to selling property nestled deep in flyover country.
“People keep saying, ‘The Pavillion area, the Pavillion area, the Pavillion area,’” Paulsen said, and then laughed. “It’s still Wyoming, so if you give it a year or two, people won’t even remember where it’s at.”
Jeff Locker wants answers, not trouble.
“I’m standing up for what I think is right, and I think that’s very important,” said Locker, an active member of the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, a small group of residents who want answers about their water.
“I don’t want to antagonize my neighbors; I have no intent to do that,” he said. “But I’m not going to back down from what’s happening here.”
It’s been a battle, he said, first with Encana Corp., the operator in the field, and sometimes with state officials.
He’s grateful for the governor’s visits to talk about the problem and ongoing state work to get residents clean water, and he’s glad the EPA’s testing is showing some results.
He’s surprised publicity could damage the value of land in the area. Homes? Maybe.
John Fenton is chairman of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, whose members have grown “pretty close out here.”
Fenton acknowledged his neighbors’ complaints and said he sympathizes. But he said all the trouble stems from the same cause.
“The fact of the matter is we wouldn’t have to be trying to publicize this and get something done if it had been done right in the first place,” he said.
He said there’s been “a lack of communication” between neighbors, something he said needs to change.
“I’m hoping we can work through that the way neighbors try to work through problems like that,” he said.
For Warren, Martin, Hugus and neighbor Vince Dolbow, stepping into the spotlight they abhor has let them hear each other’s complaints.
They keep in touch and share information. Dolbow and Hugus both attend Sunnyside Church of the Nazerene in nearby Kinnear, where Martin is the pastor.
But Hugus said he and the others have no plans to create a group opposing Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens. Still, it’s good to know there are other people dealing with the global attention, he said.
“So many of us didn’t realize how this perception was affecting everyone else,” he said. “When we start talking, we’re finding out it’s much more significant than we thought.”
Whether they wanted it or not, those in the Pavillion area are now locked into a struggle for the future of a key technique of the oil and natural gas industry.
That fight — now pushing neighbors into suspicion and hurt — could forge fence-line friendships. Or it could tear them further apart, just another hurt for neighbors caught in a war beyond their valley.