Thu Oct 1, 2009 8:26am EDT
By Jon Hurdle
PAVILLION, Wyoming (Reuters) – Louis Meeks, a burly 59-year-old alfalfa farmer, fills a metal trough with water from his well and watches an oily sheen form on the surface which gives off a faint odor of paint.
He points to small bubbles that appear in the water, and a thin ring of foam around the edge.
Meeks is convinced that energy companies drilling for natural gas in this central Wyoming farming community have poisoned his water and ruined his health.
A recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency suggests he just might have a case — and that the multi-billion dollar industry may have a problem on its hands. EPA tests found his well contained what it termed 14 “contaminants of concern.”
It tested 39 wells in the Pavillion area this year, and said in August that 11 were contaminated. The agency did not identify the cause but said gas drilling was a possibility.
What’s happened to the water supply in Pavillion could have repercussions for the nation’s energy policies. As a clean-burning fuel with giant reserves in the United States, natural gas is central to plans for reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
But aggressive development is drawing new scrutiny from residents who live near gas fields, even in energy-intensive states such as Wyoming, where one in five jobs are linked to the oil and gas industry which contributed more than $15 billion the state economy in 2007.
People living near gas drilling facilities in states including Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming have complained that their water has turned cloudy, foul-smelling, or even black as a result of chemicals used in a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
The industry contends drilling chemicals are heavily diluted and injected safely into gas reservoirs thousands of feet beneath aquifers, so they will never seep into drinking water supplies.
“There has never been a documented case of fracking that’s contaminated wells or groundwater,” said Randy Teeuwen, a spokesman for EnCana Corp (ECA), Canada’s second-largest energy company, which operates 248 wells in the Pavillion and nearby Muddy Ridge fields.