Pavillion water investigation falls further behind original schedule

May 7, 2014 By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

State officials have made progress investigating possible groundwater contamination east of Pavillion, but the process has fallen further behind schedule.

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission finished the first draft of a report on the integrity of well bores in the Pavillion field, and the agency is negotiating a contract with an independent expert to review it, according Bob King, a WOGCC consultant on the project.

Both steps are part of a plan brokered between Gov. Matt Mead's office and the federal Environmental Protection Agency last year when EPA dropped its own study of water quality in the Pavillion field.

WOGCC is still working on a draft of a second report, on mud pits, and it has not settled on an expert to review it.

King said final reports would be ready by September.

In line with the plan, WOGCC also is to send the drafts to EPA and Encana Corporation, the operator of many wells in the Pavillion field.

"The state is under no obligation to change anything based on their concerns, but we certainly want to know their issues and concerns," King explained.

Jeremiah Rieman, natural resource policy adviser for Mead, said final reports could be released to the public in about 45 days.

The two investigations look to see if pits or wells could have contaminated nearby groundwater and for the most part intended to review existing data. Well bores are holes drilled for hydrocarbon wells, and mud pits are holes or tanks storing excess drilling liquid.

The report comes as water deliveries to residences affected by groundwater contamination have begun, at state expense.

More testing

Investigators from the state Department of Environmental Quality plan to begin testing domestic water wells in the area for contamination in the upcoming weeks as part of the third component to the oilfield groundwater study.

DEQ is writing the third report based its ongoing examination of domestic water wells. The agency is to test for pollutants in water and examine the structure of the wells.

The third report also is to go through a first draft, review by an outside expert, EPA and Encana and a final, public draft.

Plans announced in June called for the two WOGCC reports to be finished by Dec. 30, 2013. In December, officials said the process was moving slower than they expected, but they would finish draft versions in January and the final report by the end of February.

WOGCC would not be releasing the draft reports publicly, Rieman said.

"What we're not interested in is releasing a draft report similar to the EPA that might contain conclusions that might change," Rieman said.

Earlier opinions

In 2011, EPA released a draft of a study that linked hydraulic fracturing in the Pavillion field to groundwater contamination. The agency backed off the finding after its methods drew criticism, and promised to submit the study to peer review, then decided to hand the investigation over to the state.

By the end of April, only one first draft was finished, and officials were close to finalizing the choice of one expert. The second report was not so far along. DEQ had planned to conduct its first water tests last fall but also fell behind schedule.

Rieman said it now hopes to conduct those tests in the next two weeks. The agency plans to perform another round of tests in August or September, he said.

"We'd rather get this right than rush it. Understanding the importance of it, we're making sure we're meeting all the commitments we made in the agreement with Encana and EPA," Rieman said about the delays. "Vetting independent experts...took longer than we would have liked."

The state agencies solicited suggestions for experts from EPA, Encana, other interested groups and local residents, Rieman said. DEQ and WOGCC compiled the a list of names and vetted them for conflicts of interest, including asking for input on the experts from the stakeholders, and checked their credentials.

Slow pace

Some Pavillion area residents have criticized the state agencies for moving more slowly than anticipated and noted that Mead at one time chided EPA for moving slowly.

Mead in 2013 questioned EPA's decision to extend for a third time the public comment period on the 2011 report. The extension would have delayed a review of the study by independent experts.

The situations were different, Rieman said, and drawing a parallel was not appropriate.

"I'm telling you why we have a delay. We were never given any indication (from EPA) why there was a delay," he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency was studying groundwater contamination near the Pavillion oil field until it dropped the investigation in June 2013. Since then, the state agencies took up the investigation funded by a $1.5 million grant from Encana Corporation, owner of many of the Pavillion field wells.

Questions about the Pavillion area's water arose more than eight years ago, when residents complained of a chemical smell in their water.

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