Thursday, January 26, 2012

Don’t Drink the Water by Peter Gorman

     Here's a map that gives you sense where fracking is happening or likely to happen.

When Jeff Locker looks out over his 1,500 acres of land just outside Pavillion, Wyo., he remembers what it used to look like: three horses in the corral, fields of barley and alfalfa bending in the breeze. These days the view from every window looks out over nearby shale gas wells, his own contaminated water wells, and an empty pasture: He stopped keeping horses after two of them died from nerve damage after drinking from a large plastic stock tank fed by his well. His wife is suffering from extreme neuropathy — he describes it a shooting nerve pain that radiates from the base of her spine or up her shins — that also came on after she drank the well water.

Locker is not alone in his problems. Louis Meeks lost cattle, horses, and sheep after they drank from contaminated stock tanks.

 And there are others. The sparsely populated gas field northeast of Pavillion has become a national focal point in the battle raging between the natural gas industry and  those who say they’ve suffered severe damage due to that industry, from illnesses to contaminated groundwater to loss of property value.

Until now, the gas industry has been able to deflect much of the hue and cry over its alleged poisoning of groundwater sources. Drillers have claimed that there was never any proof that hydraulic fracturing — blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and dangerous chemicals thousands of feet underground to blow open shale deposits to free trapped natural gas — has ever contaminated a single well. In those cases where it’s been apparent that the industry’s actions absolutely did contaminate water supplies — including several cases in North Texas — gas companies have simply bought the properties and had the former owners sign nondisclosure agreements, meaning they can’t say they’ve been bought out because of contamination.

But the argument began to change in 2009, when the Environmental Protection Agency decided to investigate the Pavillion gas field. The EPA action came at the urging of the Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability project, people like Locker and Meeks, and the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an organization devoted to protecting Wyoming’s environment from irresponsible development.

The area was quickly designated an EPA Superfund site, meaning that it has been found to be contaminated with hazardous chemicals and that the EPA will try to determine who is responsible so that they can be legally forced to clean up the mess.

The EPA’s findings, released as a draft last month, clearly lay the blame at the feet of the gas industry and in particular, Encana Corporation, the gas field owner around Pavillion.

The agency found that natural gas and dangerous chemicals were migrating through local aquifers. More importantly the EPA discovered, via its own monitoring wells, that man-made chemicals used exclusively for hydraulic fracturing are showing up in the water.

In other words, these chemicals couldn’t have come from some sort of natural source or even another man-made source, but only from gas drilling. It was the first time that a direct scientific link has been made between gas drilling and groundwater contamination.

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