Hydrofracked? One Man’s Mystery Leads to a Backlash Against Natural Gas Drilling - ProPublica

Louis Meeks’ well water contains methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper, according to the EPA’s test results. When he drilled a new water well, it also showed contaminants. The drilling company EnCana is supplying Meeks with drinking water. (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

by Abrahm Lustgarten
ProPublica, Feb. 25, 2011, 6 a.m.

This story was published as part of Amazon's Kindle Singles program, and is available for reading [1] on that device. ProPublica's first Kindle Single,"Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story," is also available [2].

There are few things a family needs to survive more than fresh drinking water. And Louis Meeks, a burly, jowled Vietnam War hero who had long ago planted his roots on these sparse eastern Wyoming grasslands, was drilling a new well in search of it.

The drill bit spun, whining against the alluvial mud and rock that folds beneath the Wind River Range foothills. It ploughed to 160 feet, but the water that spurted to the surface smelled foul, like a parking lot puddle drenched in motor oil. It was no better — yet — than the water Meeks needed to replace.

Meeks used to have abundant water on his small alfalfa ranch, a 40-acre plot speckled with apple and plum trees northeast of the Wind River Mountains and about five miles outside the town of Pavillion. For 35 years he drew it clear and sweet from a well just steps from the front door of the plain, eight-room ranch house that he owns with his wife, Donna. Neighbors would stop off the rural dirt road on their way to or from work in the gas fields to fill plastic jugs; the water was better than at their own homes.

But in the spring of 2005, Meeks’ water had turned fetid. His tap ran cloudy, and the water shimmered with rainbow swirls across a filmy top. The scent was sharp, like gasoline. And after 20 minutes — scarcely longer than you’d need to fill a bathtub — the pipes shuttered and popped and ran dry.

Meeks suspected that environmental factors were to blame. He focused on the fact that Pavillion, home of a single four-way stop sign and 174 people, lies smack in the middle of Wyoming’s gas patch. Since the mid 1990’s, more than 1,000 gas wells had been drilled in the region — some 200 of them right around Pavillion — thousands of feet through layers of drinking water and into rock that yields tiny rivulets of trapped gas. The drilling has left abandoned toxic waste pits scattered across the landscape.It has also disturbed the earth itself. One step in the drilling cracks and explodes the earth in a physical assault that breaks up the crust and shakes the gas loose. In that process, called hydraulic fracturing, a brew of chemicals is injected deep into the earth to lubricate the fracturing and work its way into the rock. How far it goes and where it ends up, no one really knows. Meeks wondered if that wasn’t what ruined his well.

Meeks couldn’t have foreseen it when he began raising questions about his water, but hydraulic fracturing was about to revolutionize the global energy industry and herald one of the biggest expansions in U.S. energy exploration in a century. Although the basic technique was developed decades ago, technological advances had made it possible to frack deeply buried rock formations long thought to be inaccessible. That meant a vast stockpile of domestic energy was suddenly available to help loosen the grip of foreign oil on the U.S. economy. It also meant that gas — which burns cleaner than coal — would become a pillar of the government’s campaign to address climate change.

As a result, drilling was about to happen in states not typically known for oil and gas exploration, including Michigan, New York and even Maryland. It would go from rural, sparsely populated outposts like Pavillion to urban areas outside Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh. Along the way, a string of calamitous accidents and suspicious environmental problems would eventually make hydraulic fracturing so controversial that it would monopolize congressional hearings, draw hundreds in protests and inspire an Academy-Award-nominated documentary produced for Hollywood.

Louis Meeks, unintentionally, would be a part of that fight from the very beginning. His personal fight began with something simple: the energy industry’s insistence that fracturing couldn’t contaminate water.

If the earth were an apple, the argument goes, Meeks’ drinking water was drawn from the thin skin, while the gas drilling happened far deeper, close to the seeded core. The environment is also protected by the meticulous construction of the gas well itself, with layers of cement poured around redundant layers of steel to contain whatever happens inside the pipe and shield the fresh water around it from contamination.

“You’ve got about a mile of rock between the areas you are fracturing and the drinking water,” says Doug Hock, a spokesperson for the U.S. Division of EnCana, which owns several hundred gas wells around Pavillion. With its Canadian division, EnCana is the fifth largest oil company in North America.

Still, the circumstances near Meeks’ property in Pavillion all pointed to drilling.

Three months before his water went bad, EnCana had laid pipe down into a gas well about 500 feet from Meeks’ front door. The well, called Tribal Pavillion 24-2, had “circulation” problems during its construction — meaning that the cement may not have filled all the space between the well and the earth, and that its walls had to be strengthened. EnCana says the problems were minor and had nothing to do with the deterioration of Meeks’ water. “There is no evidence to suggest the well bore integrity was in any way or at any time compromised,” Hock said. But over time Meeks’ water had become undrinkable. His neighbors stopped filling up their bottles with it. Soon they were afraid to touch it.

Meeks started calling state environmental officials, but he got little help. They said his water met national standards, so it was still safe to drink. The taste, they said, was probably from rare iron bacteria that can’t easily be removed.

EnCana vehemently denied responsibility. The company’s engineers explained to Meeks that the layer of natural gas EnCana was mining was some 3,200 feet — more than half a mile — below the bottom of Meeks’ water well. It would be like a drop of poison seeping its way through the granite massif of El Capitan for drilling fluids to wind up in his water. “Activity in the natural gas well did not contaminate the surrounding soil or groundwater,” Hock stated.

In the spring of 2005, however, EnCana began bringing Meeks a tanker full of fresh water each month as a “good neighbor” gesture. A 5,000-gallon cistern full of fresh water was connected via a long black plastic pipe to the plumbing in his home and refilled every month. But EnCana made it clear that the tank was temporary, and Meeks decided he had to drill a new hole from scratch. This one, he decided, would need to be deeper than his old well and a football field’s length further from the gas wells. He paid a contractor $13,000 to drill it, taking the money from his retirement savings. He felt he had no choice. He’d settled on the land intending to spend the rest of his life there.

“It’s a nice little place,” Meeks said. “We raise our own lamb, raise our own beef, eggs, we put a garden in. It’s pretty hard to just start over.”

Meeks was born in Riverton, a ranching and drilling town 26 miles from Pavillion, in 1950. In the spring of 1969, he was stationed with the 34th Engineer Battalion in Vietnam when his base was attacked in the middle of the night. Rockets rained down on the barracks, and a piece of shrapnel sliced through his buttocks and into his gut. He received medals for his service, including the Purple Heart, but he also spent the next two years in hospitals — in Tokyo and then Germany and finally at Fitzsimmons Veterans facility in Denver, where a colostomy reconstructed his intestinal tract. After the Army he came home to Wyoming, where he found day work tying wool for a sheep shearing crew, and then on the drill rigs. He was part of a cementing crew and a workover crew — the team that goes back to an old well and re-stimulates it to get it to produce more oil or gas. But when he complained of stomach pain his VA doctor said he shouldn’t lift more than 25 pounds. “In the oil field you’ve got to lift more than that,” he says, “so they got rid of me.”

Before Meeks retired he learned a thing or two about drilling. He knew that cementing a well was crucial to holding in the gas and contaminants and that sometimes — more often than people liked to say — it failed. After all, there was no way to know for sure that every little crevice and cavern in the earth surrounding a well bore had been completely sealed. The best measure of the strength of that barrier was the circulation process, which works on the assumption that when excess cement comes back up the sides after being pumped down the middle, it has filled everything in between. And that was the very process that EnCana had trouble with on 24-2.

So, there Meeks was on Dec. 19, 2005, watching his contractor drilling deeper, puncturing one layer after another of clay, shale and sandstone bedrock interspersed with overlapping aquifers that trapped fresh water beneath the ground like a giant natural filter. The drill bit hit 340 feet, but the water was still bad. At 440 feet, it wasn’t any better. Geologists say that 30 rock formations containing fresh water may lie beneath Pavillion — layers that supply drinking, irrigation and cattle water for almost all the rural residents in that part of the state. How many of those layers were no longer clean?

At 540 feet the new well still wasn’t drawing water suitable for the cattle trough, and Meeks’ contractor, Louis Dickinson, shut down the engines and brought the drill bit to a rest. But before Dickinson could finish the job, a distant rumbling began echoing from below. It grew steadily louder, like some paranormal force winding its way through the earth. “Then, holy mackerel,” says Meeks, “it just came on us.”

An explosion of white foam and water, chased by a powerful stream of natural gas, shot out of the ground where Meeks had drilled his well. It sprayed 200 feet through the air, nearly blowing the 70-foot-tall drilling derrick off its foundation, crystallizing in the frigid winter air and precipitating into a giant tower of ice.

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