Finger pointing has begun among the federal, state and industry stakeholders in the ongoing effort to determine whether natural gas drilling, and specifically hydraulic fracturing (fracking), near Pavillion, WY, has contaminated groundwater.

A unit of Encana Corp., which operates in the area, has raised red flags about alleged differences between recent U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) test results and earlier U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests that raised the possibility that the gas drilling was the culprit. The EPA, USGS and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) agreed earlier this year to test and analyze data from two test wells.

Late last month USGS issued two reports about groundwater samples, which EPA said were “generally consistent” with its initial testing results (see NGI, Oct. 1). However, state officials — and Encana — have concluded that the latest data indicates that there’s no basis to prove fracking was involved in the area’s water contamination. Encana has claimed that the contamination preceded its operations, which began about seven years ago. The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wyoming office also has suggested a broader, better constructed set of tests needs to be undertaken.

“The USGS results provide no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has created impact to groundwater,” said an Encana spokesperson. “Further, and more importantly, EPA has provided no sound scientific evidence that drilling has impacted domestic drinking water wells in the area.”

The USGS’s latest testing provides “a good comparison and is a good reality check” on the EPA’s earlier testing, according to Encana. Encana provided NGI with a detailed side-by-side comparison of 24 different contaminants measured in the EPA and USGS work, and 16 were classified as not detected or not analyzed by USGS. Only four were not detected by EPA.

“The USGS validated its analytical results in accordance with EPA data validation standards,” said the Encana spokesperson. “To the best of our knowledge, EPA has not validated any of its analytical results.”

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said last week the testing process had gone smoothly for one of the wells, but on the second there had been some disagreements. “Well No. 1 we all agreed could be flushed out appropriately and tested, and those are the results that we cooperatively have now. But on well No. 2, Wyoming and USGS did not feel there was sufficient water source there to do the flushing necessary to get adequate tests. EPA disagreed with that and proceeded on its own and tested, so we had a data dump [from EPA]…of all these results.

Even with cooperative agreement between parties, Mead said EPA results have raised concerns. Mead said the issue is not a problem that has a “political fix.” He reiterated that “whatever the science is, whatever the data shows, is what we ought to react to.”

The contaminated water is from shallow (1,500-foot deep) water wells, he said. “In addition, these wells were drilled prior to the state’s hydraulic fracturing rules being in place,” Mead said. “In other words, things have changed significantly since these wells were drilled, and it is an area in which there is gas and water at relatively shallow depths.

“So if they find EPA was right on certain points, then we as a state have to figure out how we avoid that, and to determine if the fracking rules we have would have prevented whatever impact there was. We’ll look at that and whatever we need to, we will make sure the rules and regulations we have are adequate. If they are not, then we will make some changes.”

It’s too soon to draw conclusions, he said. “It is an important enough issue to Wyoming and the rest of the country that early conclusions need to be avoided, and we need to wait until the scientists tell me what they think. I think the collaboration on the first well was a much better process, and I would have preferred for EPA not to go outside that on well No. 2.”

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