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'They have given us our land back'

Jun 26, 2013 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Residents near Pavillion relieved EPA is backing off its fracking investigation

Many Pavillion-area residents were relieved to hear reports last week that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is backing off on its investigation into the effects of hydraulic fracturing on water quality in Fremont County.

"They have given us our land back," local farmer Jon Martin said Monday.

Martin has been trying to sell his property over the past several years, but because of the EPA's investigation appraisers have "redlined" his farm, he said.

"Which makes it worthless," Martin said. "The feedback I got from my realtor, after a great many showings, is, 'They're afraid about your place because of the water.'"

He thanked Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and the state's Legislature and water commission for stepping in and taking the investigative lead from the EPA.

"The governor ... has shown tremendous leadership and insight," Martin said. "He's given us our life back."

The state anticipates a final report on the issue in 2014. Until then, the legislature approved the distribution of free cisterns to Pavillion-area residents to ensure their drinking water is clean.

Martin said the cisterns solved his appraisal problem.

"Now I have a sellable piece of property," he said.

He doesn't plan to use the cistern for his own consumption, however.

"I have a good well," he said, citing an EPA study on his and dozens of other wells in the area. "I have all the paperwork."

Martin said 37 of the 39 wells the EPA tested came up clean, with two showing a contaminant that could be naturally occurring.

The town's water is safe to drink too, Martin added.

"The Pavillion water is tested, what, four times a year?" he said. "It's good water."

'God or nature'

The investigation into Pavillion's water reportedly began more than seven years ago when residents complained of a chemical smell in their water. A hydraulic fracturing operation was ongoing nearby, but the EPA's efforts to find potential pathways from deeper areas where gas is extracted to shallower areas tapped by domestic water wells were inconclusive, according to reports.

In 2011, the EPA publicly linked fracking with groundwater contamination in the area, but Wyoming officials reportedly have been skeptical that hydraulic fracturing played a role in water pollution in Pavillion.

Martin said he agrees that the EPA's findings were "suspicious from the beginning."

"If you're going to drill a 900-foot (well) into a shallow gas field and call it a water well, that's wrong," Martin said. "They hit gas because gas here is about 200 feet below the surface. This has been proven for 100 years out here. This gas field was discovered by people drilling water wells."

Another Pavillion resident, Steve Hugus, also thinks the groundwater contamination existed in the area before the energy industry moved in.

"The undesirable elements in some of the wells are there naturally, prior to fracking and prior to drilling," Hugus said. "While people have wells that aren't satisfactory, we don't believe they can blame anyone other than God or nature."

Vince Dolbow of Pavillion said he's excited for the conclusion of the state's study next year. He hopes the report will give people definitive proof that the town's water is clear of contamination due to hydraulic fracturing.

"We're not pro-energy per se, (but) I live here, and hopefully my relatives will live here a long time too," Dolbow said. "I don't want anything messed up in our water. I want things taken care of responsibly."

Encana funding

Not everyone in the small town was happy about last week's announcement. One group of Pavillion residents issued a press release condemning the state's control of the investigation into groundwater contamination.

"We went to (the) EPA for help after the State of Wyoming and Encana refused to address the public health impacts of unbridled development in the Pavillion area," area farmer John Fenton said in the release. "Now Encana has bought their way back in and is working with the state on a strategy to cover up the mess they've created."

Part of the state-led investigation reportedly is funded by a $1.5 million grant from Encana Corp.'s U.S. oil and gas subsidiary, which owns a gas field in Pavillion. Published reports state the Encana funding will be used to examine 14 domestic water wells in the company's field for water quality and palatability concerns.

"Our government's priority is clearly to protect industry rather than Wyoming citizens, our health and our property values," Fenton said. "Governor Mead, the Obama administration and Encana have decided what is best for our community without consulting us."

Ginny Warren, owner of "The Roost" restaurant in Pavillion, thinks that Encana simply wants to help find the source of any water contamination.

"They'd like to get to the bottom of it as well," she said. "They inherited the problem. They didn't necessarily create it."

Martin said he trusts the state to do an "unbiased study and to come to the correct results." But tribal leaders also expressed concern about Encana's financial involvement, calling the grant a "conflict of interest."

In a press release issued last week, the Northern Arapaho Business Council noted that plans for the ongoing investigation appear to have been negotiated between Mead, the EPA and industry representatives without input from residents or the tribes of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

"The EPA staff in Washington, D.C., (has) a legal duty to consult with the tribe, and that didn't happen as part of their dialogue with the governor," NABC co-chairman Ronald Oldman said in the release.

Co-chairman Darrell O'Neal also wondered about the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission's involvement in the investigation. The tribes reportedly issued a permanent injunction against the WOGCC in 1969.

"They don't have authority to regulate the tribe's minerals," O'Neal said. "Any cooperative agreement between the governor and the EPA needs to be mindful of this."

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