Despite horrific damage done
There is no joy in finding the smoking gun
EPA Finds Compound Used in Fracking in Wyoming Aquifer
by Abrahm Lustgarten
ProPublica, Nov. 10, 2011, 1:10 p.m.
As the country awaits results from a nationwide safety study on the natural
gas drilling process of fracking, a separate government investigation into
contamination in a place where residents have long complained that drilling
fouled their water has turned up alarming levels of underground pollution.
A pair of environmental monitoring wells drilled deep into an aquifer in
Pavillion, Wyo., contain high levels of cancer-causing compounds and at
least one chemical commonly used in hydraulic fracturing, according to new
water test results released yesterday by the Environmental Protection
The findings are consistent with water samples the EPA has collected from
at least 42 homes in the area since 2008, when ProPublica began reporting
on foul water and health concerns in Pavillion and the agency started
investigating reports of contamination there.
Last year -- after warning residents not to drink or cook with the water
and to ventilate their homes when they showered -- the EPA drilled the
monitoring wells to get a more precise picture of the extent of the
The Pavillion area has been drilled extensively for natural gas over the
last two decades and is home to hundreds of gas wells. Residents have
alleged for nearly a decade that the drilling -- and hydraulic fracturing
in particular -- has caused their water to turn black and smell like
gasoline. Some residents say they suffer neurological impairment, loss of
smell, and nerve pain they associate with exposure to pollutants.
The gas industry -- led by the Canadian company EnCana, which owns the
wells in Pavillion -- has denied that its activities are responsible for
the contamination. EnCana has, however, supplied drinking water to
The information released yesterday by the EPA was limited to raw sampling
data: The agency did not interpret the findings or make any attempt to
identify the source of the pollution. From the start of its investigation,
the EPA has been careful to consider all possible causes of the
contamination and to distance its inquiry from the controversy around
Still, the chemical compounds the EPA detected are consistent with those
produced from drilling processes, including one -- a solvent called
2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE) -- widely used in the process of hydraulic
fracturing. The agency said it had not found contaminants such as nitrates
and fertilizers that would have signaled that agricultural activities were
The wells also contained benzene at 50 times the level that is considered
safe for people, as well as phenols -- another dangerous human carcinogen
-- acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel.
The EPA said the water samples were saturated with methane gas that matched
the deep layers of natural gas being drilled for energy. The gas did not
match the shallower methane that the gas industry says is naturally
occurring in water, a signal that the contamination was related to drilling
and was less likely to have come from drilling waste spilled above ground.
EnCana has recently agreed to sell its wells in the Pavillion area to
Texas-based oil and gas company Legacy Reserves for a reported $45 million,
but has pledged to continue to cooperate with the EPA's investigation.
EnCana bought many of the wells in 2004, after the first problems with
groundwater contamination had been reported.
The EPA's research in Wyoming is separate from the agency's ongoing
national study of hydraulic fracturing's effect on water supplies, and is
being funded through the Superfund cleanup program.
The EPA says it will release a lengthy draft of the Pavillion findings,
including a detailed interpretation of them, later this month.