EPA Abandons Pavillion Fracking Investigation

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Angela Godwin, Chief Editor

Last month, in an abrupt change of course, the Environmental Protection Agency ceased its investigation into reports of drinking water contamination in Pavillion, Wyo.

Complaints of foul drinking water there date back to 2005 when rancher Louis Meeks discovered his tap water -- previously pristine for the 35 years he'd lived on the property -- had turned cloudy and taken on a rainbow sheen.

At the time, some 200 wells had been fracked in Pavillion, including one just 500 feet from Meeks's property. That was three months before his water went bad.

Meeks launched his own personal investigation to understand what could have happened to his water. He could not have anticipated the storm of controversy he would set in motion.

At the urgent and persistent request of Meeks and other Pavillion residents, EPA finally got involved in March 2009, when the agency collected 39 water samples. By August, the agency released its first test results, which indicated the presence of several contaminants, including methane, arsenic, xylene, toluene, and 2-butoxyethanol phosphate, a compound used in hydraulic fracturing solutions.

Suddenly everyone was pointing fingers: environmentalists pounced on oil and gas companies for polluting the water; drillers vehemently attacked EPA for its testing practices and for stifling economic prosperity. It was a barroom blitz.

Tiptoeing around the elephant in the room, EPA was very careful at the time to not officially link the water contamination directly to the drilling activities in the area. Rather, the agency committed to a second round of testing, the results of which were released later that fall and revealed more of the same.

The real showstopper would come in December 2011, when EPA released its draft report. After three years of investigations, analysis, and review, the agency concluded that "groundwater in the aquifer contains compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracturing."

If the reaction to the earlier investigation was a storm, this was a Category 5 hurricane. It cast a cloud of concern over a practice -- hydraulic fracturing -- that had become glorified as the nation's golden ticket to energy independence.

Champions from both corners of the ring came out swinging. There were letters, debates, Congressional hearings. EPA was accused of a "rush to judgment" and of orchestrating "a witch hunt to find pretext to regulate."

EPA, all the while, adamantly maintained that it stood by its science and methodology.

But in June of this year something happened. Just what, exactly, is the subject of much debate -- although political pressure seems to be the favorite culprit. After five years of investigation, EPA announced it would hand the investigation over to the state.

Wyoming, through the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (WOGCC), will pick up where EPA left off, conducting a review of the data thus far and initiating its own subsequent testing.

Perhaps that's a good thing. I mean, technically, it's a state issue (albeit with national relevance). The important thing is that the research be done. Right?

There's just one small detail that concerns me. There's another player on Wyoming's fracking dream team: Encana. The very driller at the center of Pavillion's water trouble will not only have an opportunity to provide input and recommend third-party experts for the state's investigation but is also contributing $1.5 million towards the study.

Hydraulic fracturing has been around for decades and it's not going away anytime soon. The sooner we -- as an industry and as a nation -- can figure out how to do it safely, the sooner we can feel comfortable about enjoying its benefits.

But I have to wonder: When investigating the structure of a hen house, does it make sense for a fox to be the lead contractor?

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