Documents don't show why EPA abandoned Pavillion water study

Dec 28, 2014 By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The Environmental Protection Agency never has fully explained why, after five years, it turned its investigation of groundwater near Pavillion over to Wyoming. The state has said the federal agency's work was flawed, and Wyoming's investigators could perform a sound study.

The operator of a natural gas field in the area, Encana Oil and Gas USA, supported Wyoming assuming leadership because the company believed EPA's work was flawed and that Wyoming could do a better job.

EPA had been looking into complaints from residents living east of Pavillion that their domestic well water had a foul taste, odor and quality. The agency released a draft report in 2011 linking the issues to hydrocarbons in the water near where natural gas wells were operating.

Backing off

On June 20, 2013, EPA an-nounced it would back off from the 2011 draft report completely.

EPA "does not plan to finalize or seek peer review of its draft Pavillion groundwater report released in December 2011. Nor does the agency plan to rely upon the conclusions in the draft report," according to a press release from that day.

The joint statement announced that the State of Wyoming would lead a new investigation into groundwater near Pavillion.

Recently released documents show the turnover was an agreement between EPA and Wyoming, with buy-in from Encana. Interviews with all three sides involved did not contradict that arrangement.

No clear reason

EPA did not make clear why it turned the investigation over to one of its principal detractors.

"I think the answer is, we welcomed the commitment of the state to conduct additional investigation," agency spokesman Rich Mylott said.

He did not explain further why EPA "welcomed the commitment of the state."

"I think the press release was very clear on that," Mylott said.

In it, however, the agency acknowledges it would stop its study and support the state's but does not say why it did so except to applaud Wyoming's commitment.

"In light of this announcement, we believe that EPA's focus going forward should be on using our resources to support Wyoming's efforts, which will build on EPA's monitoring results," EPA's acting administrator at the time, Bob Perciasepe, said in the press release.

Mylott continued to call the state's investigation a "positive step" and a "good thing" at various times, but never explained why EPA stopped its own study.

Mylott did not say whether EPA viewed the state's study as better than its own, and he minimized the significance of the federal agency's decision to stop its investigation.

"EPA's still playing a roll in communication with the state, reviewing its work, and providing technical support as the state continues its investigation," he said.

Mylott suggested that information yet to be released from FOIA requests would be the best source of information on EPA dropping its study.

The agency is still processing those requests from this newspaper.

EPA approached the state about taking over the study, and the Wyoming Governor's Office thought its agencies could conduct a sound investigation so Wyoming took the feds up on their offer, Gov.Matt Mead's natural resource policy director ,Jeremiah Rieman, said in a recent interview.

"We felt we were in a good position to work with all the various parties to try and find an answer to what the situation is in Pavillion. I don't know if it came down to us saying we could to it better than anyone else but we were in a good position to do it," he said.

Wyoming had criticized EPA's study in the past, however, in particular the 2011 draft report.

Days after the draft report was released, Gov. Matt Mead wrote that EPA "rushed to conclusions... not supported by available evidence."

The governor's office believes state agencies will do a good job.

"We feel pretty confident the (Department of Environmental Quality) could do the work. To the extent we didn't think we would have the expertise, that's where we made the connection to make sure we would have the outside experts to make sure we had the expertise," Rieman said.

Encana also has criticized EPA's methods, and it supported the state's plan enough to contribute $1.5 million to fund the effort.

"It was not a study that was done well," Encana spokesman Doug Hock said about the federal investigation. "That's why we supported the Oil and Gas (Conservation) commission taking over the process going forward."

Two components of the state's investigation are under OGCC, and the Department of Environmental Quality is conducting the third.

"We disagreed, first of all, with the process they used, and also with the conclusions," Hock said.

An example, he said, were EPA's two monitoring wells, which were drilled in an oil and gas field to depths at which hydrocarbons were known to be located. It was unsurprising when those wells produced water samples containing chemicals associated with oil and gas.

"We didn't put them there. Mother Nature did," he said.

Encana has more faith in the state's investigation.

"They have a much better understanding of the area and of the activity there. They have a better understanding of the geology of the area and the expertise to really do the study," Hock said.

Hock said his company did not contribute $1.5 million in exchange for any special treatment.

"We were a key stakeholder in the process and at the time that the state took over the investigation and study there were no resources available for that, and so we took it upon ourselves to provide that," he said in an interview.

Whether hydraulic fracturing east of Pavillion contaminated groundwater remains an open question.

Wyoming's study is under way, but it has dragged on past the planned Sept. 30 due date. One component, a report on well bores, is finished. A second, on disposal pits, has been drafted. Both are inconclusive and call for further work.

The final report on domestic water wells is to be released in March, by the latest account.

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