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As Pavillion water tests go forward, transparency issues raised by residents

Jun 17, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Rural Pavillion landowners were concerned with transparency and other aspects of a state study into groundwater quality near their homes at a June 12 meeting. Officials also reported they were making progress on the investigations.

One concern was whether state agencies would make public the changes to their reports suggested by industry and federal regulators.

"Since we've started this there's been no transparency... it bothers me," local landowner Jeff Locker told state officials.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is testing well-water for a host of contaminants. It plans to release a draft report from the investigation first to Encana Oil & Gas, which operates many wells in the Pavillion field, and the Environmental Protection agency.

DEQ is to incorporate those comments and then publish a final report publicly.

Locker asked if DEQ will release the comments from Encana and EPA. He did not get a clear answer.

"We haven't really discussed how we'd present that, but I think that's certainly a possibility," DEQ director Todd Parfitt said.

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, however, has plans to release similar comments from Encana and EPA on its two Pavillion-field studies, one into waste fluid pits and another into well bores, according to commission natural resources program supervisor Tom Kropatsch.

Other attendees asked if the state agencies would release the draft reports to the public when they go to EPA and Encana. Officials said "no."

"There may be information that may get changed... or information that may get corrected. We want to provide the public with one set of information... rather than have information that my not be the final conclusion," Parfitt said.

Officials also pointed out most of the data used in the pit and well bore studies is available online. It is data other agencies, American Indian tribes and energy companies collected previously and gave to WOGCC for the study.

Similar information given to DEQ also is provided on its website, but officials did not say whether the results of water-well testing that is under way would be released.

If DEQ finds a well is contaminated, however, it will inform the owner immediately, Parfitt said.

Richard Garrett, energy policy analyst for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, attended the meeting and thought the investigation processes had largely been sound so far, but he disagreed with DEQ withholding the water-well data from the public.

"I can understand that to a certain degree, but it would be appropriate probably for the department to share that data in a broader context so others could contribute to that analysis," he said in an interview. "That's probably the one place we see the process could be improved."

Concerns that hydraulic fracturing in an oil and gas field east of Pavillion was tainting nearby groundwater arose nearly a decade ago. EPA investigated and released a draft report in 2011 linking fracking to contaminated groundwater.

EPA's conclusion was met with allegations that the science was poor and calls for a peer-review. The agency promised to vet its conclusion but in 2013 dropped it altogether in favor of the state-led studies, which are being funded by Encana.

WOGCC was making progress on its studies but could not say when they will be finished. It originally planned to complete the pit and well-bore investigations by the end of 2013.

WOGCC officials finished its draft well-bore integrity at the beginning of June and sent it to a contracted expert for review. That consultant is David Dillion, an engineer based in Centennial, Colo.

Kropatsch expected to have Dillon's comments back by the end of June, after which WOGCC would revise the report and send it to EPA and Encana. They would have 30 days to review it, and the state agency would revise the report again, taking into account the new comments and finally publish a final report.

WOGCC is finalizing a contract for an outside expert to review its pit report and was finishing that study as well, Kropatsch said. Commentary and revisions of the pit report would follow the same process as the well-bore study, but its schedule would be about four weeks behind.

DEQ groundwater section manager Mark Thiesse reported that his agency had hired scientific consultants Acton Mickelson Environmental to help sample water in the 13 domestic wells in the study's area east of Pavillion. The first round of sampling should be finished by June 20, Thiesse said, and a second would be in August.

Some residents questioned the sampling procedures.

Acton Mickelson first "purges" each well by pumping out a volume of water two to three times what the well stores, ensuring the sampled water is fresh from the aquifer, Thiesse said.

If contamination came in through a well's casing and did not affect the larger aquifer, purging could cause DEQ to miss it, several attendees worried.

Thiesse said DEQ's goal was to investigate if contamination was in the aquifer, not individual wells.

"We're looking at how individual landowners water quality is being affected by the regional aquifer," he said.

Kevin Frederick, DEQ's water quality division administrator, said a second phase of his agency's study sending video-cameras down the water wells could identify problems with individual wells.

Sampling without purging could also be an area for future investigation, Thiesse noted.

At each well, the consultants take between 46 and 104 samples and send them to three independent labs for analysis. Those labs are to test for dozens of possible contaminants that could make the water unpalatable or toxic and that could come from a variety of sources, including fracking, agriculture and septic systems.

"We do not have any focus; we do not have any preconceived ideas," Thiesse said.

Sampling methods follow standards the U.S. Geological Survey and EPA employ, he said. Furthermore, an independent data validation company is to review the data and make sure storage, collection and other sampling protocols were followed.

DEQ's water analysis will test for almost everything EPA's did, Thiesse said. DEQ will not test for one substance, tritium, and plans to use a different procedure to test for a second. Tritium is used to find the age of the water, but because that is known, his agency does not plan to test for it.

DEQ's study plans to look for a few more substances that EPA's.

"We added some bacteria, herbicides pesticides fertilizer, grease and radium," Thiesse said.

Acton Mickelson is to review all the data they collect and existing documents from other sources and help DEQ draft a report, which will also go to EPA and Encana for comments. Afterward, DEQ will consider those comments and plans to issue a final draft by the end of the year, Thiesse said.

Independent experts with Acton Mickelson are helping the agency draft the report, but plans do not call for a peer review similar to WOGCC's studies, aside form the third-party data validation.

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