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State offers water cisterns to residents near Pavillion

State offers water cisterns to residents near Pavillion

Jun 1, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

State government officials on Thursday night in Pavillion offered two choices to residents living east of Pavillion affected by poor quality drinking water containing potentially harmful substances.

Get a cistern system paid for and installed using State of Wyoming funds, or "keep doing what you're doing," said Mike Purcell, director of the Wyoming Water Development Office.

"This is totally voluntary. If you're happy with your situation, by all means keep doing what you're doing," Purcell said.

And for those concerned about their First Amendment right to voice ongoing concern about energy industry practices that may have caused water contamination in the area, Purcell had another message.

"You can still get a cistern and still raise Cain," he said.

Purcell and Jeremiah Rieman, Gov. Matt Mead's natural resource policy adviser, led a 90-minute meeting at Wind River High School in Pavillion to discuss with residents the state's plan to install cisterns for affected homeowners.

Residents who choose to get a cistern paid by a $750,000 appropriation from the Wyoming Legislature will get a system that includes a storage tank capable of holding 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of clean water -- a two- to three-week supply.

They will be responsible for operations and maintenance costs of the system, as well as routine water delivery costs that could hit $160 or more a month.

"The governor is not convinced that receiving your water out of 5-gallon jugs ... will suffice," Rieman said, referring to the situation of some affected residents. "We think we have a good plan, but we want your input on this."

The cistern proposal resulted from concerns about the availability of safe drinking water for residents east of Pavillion where tests have shown potentially harmful substances in household wells.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as the state and Wind River Indian Reservation tribes are continuing to investigate possible groundwater contamination resulting from the practice of gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing.

Groups continue to debate the Environmental Protection Agency's study released last December that cited a likely link between pollutants and the method of injecting liquid at high pressure into wells to release natural gas deposits.

The governor wanted to resolve the drinking water issue for residents to protect their property values while investigation continues into the matter, officials said.

"A lot of what we're doing here relates to the economic impact of the situation," Purcell said. "We heard loud and clear many of you have good wells but you're still suffering" financial consequences "because of the ongoing debate."

The government representatives at the meeting wanted to avoid any discussion and questions about the investigation and possible cause of harmful substances in the groundwater. A new study is expected later this year.

If there is "definitive proof" that energy industry activity caused contamination, "we will take appropriate and swift action," Rieman said. "At this point in time we do not have the means to do this."

The state's support of funding for the cisterns is considered a first. "This is not something that the Legislature has done in the past," said state Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, who was a lead proponent of the appropriation.

"This problem is so unique, and so many people are affected, we were able to convince the Legislature" to approve the funding, Bebout told the more than 50 people attending the meeting.

The cistern plan was one of five options identified in a study for the Wyoming Water Development Commission. Discussions among government leaders along with affected residents led to the decision to pursue cisterns, officials said.

There are about 35 wells identified in and around the vicinity of what's known as the Pavillion gas field that are eligible for the cisterns. Encana Oil and Gas owns the field in question.

Anyone residing outside of the area who wants a cistern can request a well test by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. The presence of hydrocarbons will qualify residents for a cistern installed at their home.

"For us to give you cisterns there has to be a public benefit," Purcell said, noting the agreement residents must sign includes permission for the state to test their groundwater wells "for the research that is happening in your area."

Part of the $750,000 appropriate will fund the construction of a water delivery site using the Town of Pavillion's municipal wells, which can handle the extra users on the system, officials said.

Rieman said costs associated with water delivery could decrease if there is a partner such as Encana that participates.

Those attending the meeting were not unanimous in their support of the cistern proposal.

"My wells test fine but I would do this purely from a business standpoint," property owner Jon Martin said.

Jeff Locker, who has water containing harmful substances at his property, and others expressed skepticism about the plan.

"I'm not going to buy into anything until I know what it's going to cost me," he said.

The idea of paying for water resulting from problems he and others say energy industry activity caused in the area is "a little bit out of line for me," Locker said.

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