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New Reports, No New Conclusions in Wyoming Water Reports

In an fierce debate about whether hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the chemicals used in the process may be to blame for contaminating the water supply of some Wyoming residents, Encana Corp. last week continued to press the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for "key technical data and information" about water wells re-tested near its natural gas development in Pavillion, WY, to enable the company to properly respond by an October deadline. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) issued two reports last week that appeared to do nothing to quell the debate.

Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. President Jeff Wojahn sent a letter in early September to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson asking the agency to clarify whether the producer would be receiving more data on the well tests. EPA apparently had said it would provide the data to Encana by Thursday. The data being used by EPA could determine whether Encana would be allowed to continue developing natural gas in the Pavillion area, where it has been operating since 2005.

"While we acknowledge that a substantial amount of requested information has been made publicly available, EPA still has not provided key technical data and information," Wojahn said. "The anticipated delay in making these documents publicly available jeopardizes the ability of Encana and others to provide meaningful comments" to EPA's draft report by Oct. 16.

When Encana initially began its Pavillion operations, several drilling pits that the producer said already were contaminated by previous development were enrolled into a state voluntary remediation program. According to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), pollution from at least three of those contaminated pits had entered the same water zone that several residents tapped for drinking water (see NGI, Sept. 6, 2010).

Following complaints by some Pavillion residents, EPA last year conducted water sampling tests and issued a draft report that appeared to link water contamination to chemicals used in fracking -- a charge disputed by not only Encana but also by Wyoming regulatory and elected officials (see NGI, Jan. 2; Dec. 19, 2011; Dec. 12, 2011).

Following several months of back-and-forth, a collaborative process was agreed upon in March. One person each from the EPA, the Wyoming DEQ, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation near Pavillion were to peer review new water sampling data. Encana was not part of the re-sampling effort, spokesman Doug Hock told NGI.

"We are concerned that EPA and USGS efforts have not been properly coordinated," Wojahn said in his letter. "We also do not know if the agencies intend to provide a single or multiple interpretations of the new data and whether such data will be integrated into a revised version" of last December's draft report.

Last Wednesday the USGS issued two reports about groundwater samples taken in April and May, which "are intended to provide additional scientific information to decision makers and all interested parties on the composition of the groundwater represented in the aquifer underlying Pavillion," said David Mott, who directs the USGS Wyoming Water Science Center. "While USGS did not interpret the data as part of this sampling effort, the raw data results are adding to the body of knowledge to support informed decisions."

The first report describes the sampling and analysis plan that was developed to collect groundwater data. A second report provides the raw data and information from the groundwater-quality samples. The groundwater-quality samples were analyzed for water quality properties, inorganic constituents including naturally occurring radioactive compounds, organic constituents, dissolved gases, stable isotopes of methane, water and dissolved inorganic carbon; and environmental tracers.

Separately, the results of water well tests on five wells conducted last spring by EPA Region 8 also are to be published soon, according to spokesman Rich Mylott. The regional EPA sampling was done outside the collaborative process, but like all EPA tests, the sampling was conducted via a water quality assurance process, he said.

The collaborative process was to be an improvement, said Renny MacKay, a spokesman for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who was a critic of EPA's initial report. "Gov. Mead felt that this process was an improvement on how the first draft report from the EPA was done," MacKay said. "It was more transparent. The team had input throughout the process." The governor wants "science and a good process" to determine the findings." Mead's position "has always been [that] he wants this investigation to play out and whatever it finds, you move on from there."

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