Is Natural Gas Drilling to Blame for Wyoming Town's Undrinkable Water?

By Joseph Calamia | September 2, 2010 4:41 pm

burnerAn EPA report published Tuesday told residents near Pavillion, Wyoming to avoid drinking and cooking with well water after tests revealed petroleum hydrocarbons and other contaminants in 17 out of 19 wells near the town. Many residents worry that local drilling for natural gas is to blame. The EPA is still investigating.

“EPA has not reached any conclusions about how constituents of concern are occurring in domestic wells,” the report said. [Reuters]

As the agency continues its investigation, it along with other government organizations and the natural gas company EnCana, will provide alternative drinking water sources for affected residents. EnCana volunteered to provide the water, though a company representative told the AP that company’s tie to the contaminated the wells is unclear–since the chemicals appeared in earlier EPA tests, before EnCana’s drilling started in 2005.

For Pavillion, which has around 250 nearby gas drilling sites, the report adds to findings from earlier well tests taken in the spring of 2009.

In spring 2008, residents of Pavillion–concerned about the quality of their drinking water–contacted the EPA in Denver, Colorado. The agency sampled 39 individual wells (37 residential wells and two municipal wells) in March 2009 and found nitrate, arsenic and methane gas. The agency conducted the second sampling in January 2010. [CNN]


The news adds to concerns about natural gas companies’ hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking. Though individual gas companies use different drilling techniques for different geological structures, the basics involve drilling around 1,000 to 8,000 feet underground and pumping in 50,000 to 350,ooo gallons of water to crack the underlying rock. After removing 15 to 80 percent of that then-contaminated water, the gas company can pump out the natural gas which flows from the cracks. The water usually comes from local surface water or groundwater; once contaminated, it can go back to surface water if filtered or into a new well underground.

As 80beats discussed in June, some believe natural gas could soon satisfy a large proportion of the United States energy needs, an estimated (pdf) 20 percent by 2020. As a result, more people are demanding a better understanding of hydraulic fracturing’s effects on drinking water sources. The EPA plans to conduct an extensive, two-year study on hydraulic fracturing starting later this year.

Related content:
80beats: Is Natural Gas the Way to a Greener Energy Future?
80beats: Methane Gas Explosion Blamed for West Virginia Coal Mining Accident
80beats: Did a Natural Gas Operation Cause a Spasm of Texas Earthquakes?
DISCOVER: Nations Stake Their Claims to a Melting Arctic, on the oil and gas rush
DISCOVER: 10 Ways Methane Could Brake Global Warming–or Break the Planet

Image: flickr / AZAdam, EPA

  • Rhacodactylus

    na, it’s not natural gas, it’s just God politely reminding you all that there is NO REASON to live in Wyoming.

  • jaykimball

    Fracking is messy technology and one of the many signs that most of the easy oil and gas is gone. From here it gets messier with increasing risk to the commonwealth and public health.

    For more on fracking, media coverage, and a video of the nasty side effects of fracking, check out:

  • Jean

    Take a look at the schematic provided. It is impossible to fracture 5000′ of rock at the rates of injection that are used. There is too much leakoff capacity in the rocks between the hydrocarbon reservoir and the aquifer. The only good reason to have concern about fracking is the indirect factors – producing oil and gas through steel pipes do have a small risk of failure of the seal and produced hydrocarbons could enter the aquifer through a failed wellbore. However, failure of the tubing and two strings of casing, all designed to maintain that seal, would have to occur. Not impossible, but very unlikely. What you should also understand is that biogenic gas (primarily methane) occurs naturally from the breakdown of organic material in many aquifers. There could be more than one reason for the methane. I’m making no judgement in which of these reasons it is.

  • Chris

    Some people have reported they can ignite their tap water near the fracking sites.

  • Gregg

    I agree with Jean. While proper procedures must be followed, the primary pathway for natural gas or other contaminants to impact an aquifer during drilling and production are through improper installation of the vertical well itself that penetrates the aquifer down to the producing zone. There may be parallels to the BP GOM incident. People should not automatically assume there is a bad guy and the bad guy is the oil and gas company. People do make mistakes however, and if it happens they need to be held accountable.

  • James

    “The EPA plans to conduct an extensive, two-year study on hydraulic fracturing starting later this year.”

    Why rushing???

    Seriously EPA is a frigging bleed&die department.

    Oh.. and don´t forget to ventilate while showering or your house will explode.

  • Joseph Calamia

    Thanks for the comments. Hey, Chris. In a June 80beats post we mentioned Josh Fox’s film Gasland, which also shows the burning tap water.

  • Brian Too

    I’m inclined to believe this is very possible. First of all, I have personal experience with a family member’s well water becoming undrinkable. This was not associated with fracking so far as I know, but did seem to be associated with oil & gas wells in the area.

    Second, the change in water status over time is suspicious with the time frame of the drilling & pumping activity.

    Third, what testing is done to assure that the fracking wells are not leaking? I mean, the whole point of the activity is to generate huge underground pressures so as to fracture the reservoir. Yet there’s no bulletproof way of limiting the range of the geological bed disruption. All you need is one weak layer in the rock, or a pre-existing fault line, and the pressurized fluids and gas are going to follow that weak point in the geology. As long as the well doesn’t completely lose pressure the gas company may never even know.

    I also get the feeling that the gas companies don’t really want to know. This is their meal ticket for the next few years. Any proof that something could be wrong with any particular well, that cuts into profits, causes legal liability, and ties up company resources. I might be wrong about that but I don’t think so. This is a little sad but the governments involved also seem to be seeing the dollar signs and not the other interests of their citizens.

  • Vince

    Reading some very ignorant and foolish comments. @Greg, what a load, you must work for a company and are drinking the coolaid. Theres no way for BENZENE to hurt the aquifer other than improper drilling?? Take a moment and look up the chemicals that are used to “Frack” in the first place.
    Maybe watch the documentary ‘Gasland’. Some of you say that you won’t pass judgment until you are more educated about the process, well then get educated. Why is there no solid information or transparency with the process? Why is the deadly fluid used to ‘frack’ proprietary? Trading clean water for Natural Gas is pathetic.

    methanol propargyl alcohol –
    (Used as a corrosion inhibitor, listed as “toxic” & “dangerous for the environment! What is it used for? replacing earth with plastic)

  • Bill

    Vince, why such a vicious personal attack? I didn’t read anything that makes me think someone is “drinking the coolaid”. Instead I hear you going on the offensive and making a personal attack. Gregg conceded the possibility of human error and simply cautioned against jumping to conclusions. The article clearly states “company’s tie to the contaminated the wells is unclear–since the chemicals appeared in earlier EPA tests, before EnCana’s drilling started in 2005.” I think you are drunk on the need to feel empowered by the little knowledge you have and a sense of indignation at the secretive aspect of this process and these companies. You could inform without insult. Leave that to the conservative press and have a little class as you seek to educate people on this subject. We need to come together as a country and work the problems that face us not work over each other while our world crumbles around us.

  • Chris the Canadian

    Fracking wells ruining the fracking drinking water and causing the people in Wyoming to go fracking nuts.

    I couldn’t resist…


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