CHEYENNE, Wyo. – A final state report released Thursday on foul-smelling well water in Wyoming contradicts an EPA report from five years ago that ignited a national backlash when it suggested hydraulic fracturing was the cause of the contamination.
Bacteria were more likely to blame for the problem in Pavillion than the oil and gas drilling process known as fracking, officials with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality said after a two-year study that was hailed by fracking advocates.
“Today’s announcement from the Wyoming DEQ doesn’t just close the case on Pavillion, it’s a knockout blow for activists who have tried to use Pavillion as a key talking point for their ban-fracking agenda,” said Randy Hildreth, Colorado director of Energy in Depth, an advocacy arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said the federal agency was reviewing the state report and declined further comment.
Fracking pumps pressurized water, sand and chemicals underground to break open oil and gas deposits.
The EPA announced in 2011 that fracking likely caused the groundwater problems in Pavillion, a community spread among dozens of gas wells owned by Denver-based Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. in the sparsely populated Wind River Basin.
The EPA draft report at the time stoked opposition to fracking, even as the process opened up major new oil and gas plays and drove down gasoline prices.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, the petroleum industry and others cast doubt on the findings of the EPA, which never finalized its report and instead handed the investigation over to Wyoming officials to complete.
A series of state studies also looked at whether oilfield waste pits and potentially leaky gas wells might have contributed to the water problem. The results failed to reassure residents.
“The data indicates that domestic water wells have been impacted by oil and gas extraction,” John Fenton, chair Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, said in a release. “It’s past time for both the state of Wyoming and Encana to publicly acknowledge the public health consequences and do something to make us whole.”
Other EPA investigations into whether fracking caused groundwater pollution in Texas and Pennsylvania also failed to yield conclusive links.
The industry continues to assert the safety of fracking, which occurs in the drilling of almost every new oil and gas well.
The Wyoming study examined 13 water supply wells in the Pavillion area while the state spent close to $1 million building cisterns for 28 property owners to store water obtained from elsewhere.
Eleven other homeowners have been getting bottled water as part of a program that will end in March.
Wyoming officials also called on the EPA in the report released Thursday to fill in and cap two wells it drilled to study groundwater in the Pavillion area.
The request underscores Wyoming officials’ position that the EPA’s science was bad and the chemistry of the well pipes probably led to its key findings, said Kevin Frederick, water quality administrator for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
“EPA installed the monitoring wells. We believe it’s their responsibility to plug and abandon them,” Frederick said.
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