Many will remember the emotional interview with Pavilion farmer John Fenton in Gasland. We met John atop Indian Ridge, Wyoming, where once the Crow and Arapaho Native American tribes battled for control of the vast Bison herds that spread across the plains. From his dusty boots, blue jeans, check shirt and dinner plate sized belt buckle, won for being 1983 Wyoming steer roping champion, you can tell John is true cowboy and rancher. He grows Lucerne and is raising his family on the land he obviously loves. Without any say in the matter he now finds himself surrounded by a gas field operated by gas company Encana. There is a gas well only 100 metres from his house and a dozen more within a mile.
The health of his family and neighbours has been impacted and he now has bottled water delivered by the gas company because his well water has been designated as not safe for drinking or cooking. He thinks he has lost 50% of the value of his home, but no one is willing to buy properties within the district at the moment. You can understand his emotions and most of our travelling party were almost in tears listening to him tell his story.
Despite the challenges, John is still farming in Pavilion and has turned his emotions into action. Apart from being quite possibly the nicest man in all of Northern America he is an amazing advocate for his community and is fighting for a stronger regulatory approach to protect community health and the local water supply. This doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.
The gas being targeted by Encana is tight sands. This is a small field of only 200 wells many if not all within about 5 miles of John’s house. The tight sands are fracked hard and often at the start of production. The pads are smaller than the shale pads in Texas and often have two wells, one targeting the upper level formation and the other a deeper formation. According to John they don’t have single wells targeting both levels because of something to do with keeping track of production from the separate seems for royalty purposes. The land is owned by local tribes and although some was bought back by the Government in years past to open it up for agriculture, the tribes retained the mineral rights. Mineral rights trump land rights and so John and the other farmers in the district are now surrounded by wells.
We hear a lot about co-existence from the Industry in Australia and so I took the opportunity to talk to John, a life long farmer about what the gas means for his farming business. I wondered how, with the problems of well contamination that I had heard of in Pavilion, he was able to maintain his agricultural operation. I had assumed he used ground water for irrigation; but the irrigation scheme that runs through the district John told me is largely from snow melt so the ground water is only a problem for domestic use.
John pointed to a spot in his Alfalfa (Lucerne to use) crop that looked stunted and partly bare. It was the same shape as a well pad. He told us that had been the sight of a well pad from the original drillings in the late 80s or early 90s. It had been decommissioned and ‘rehabilitated’ years before but still nothing of value grew there. Looking at the wells dotted across the grazing operations of the district and it was clear to me that this industry would have a long term impact on the viability of agriculture into the future, long after the gas disappeared. If it wasn’t for the vital snow melt water there is no way these farms could operate on the polluted ground water.
John has water trucks on his land about four times a week to collect produced water, which is re-injected into a deeper aquifer about 10 miles up the road. This produced water sits in condensate tanks that constantly vent volatiles into the atmosphere. The impacts of the fugitive emissions from this water, leakages from the whole network and the contamination of the domestic water wells is at the heart of the horror story that is Pavilion. John nearly tears up when talking about the health impacts on his family and community. His wife and many women in the area have been impacted by neuropathy. This is a condition caused by damage to the peripheral parts of the nervous system. It can cause ongoing numbness and tingling in the extremities and the inability to sense hot and cold. It is becoming more and more commonly reported in close proximity to operating gas fields and one of the known causes is exposure to poisons.
On top of that there are headaches and skin conditions reported around the community. While the bottled water delivered by Encana provides for drinking and cooking water, his family is forced to shower in their polluted well water. He says if you get it in your eyes while showering it burns like getting shampoo in your eye and it leaves you skin feeling dry and cracked.
After years of campaigning John and the rest of the community finally convinced the EPA to conduct a groundwater study in Pavilion. It wasn’t targeted at the drilling but after ruling out other contamination issues the EPA released a draft report that pointed the finger at fracking. Encana and the state Government have tried everything possible to discredit the EPA and the community. The EPA have warned residents not to drink or cook with the water and to ventilate their bathrooms when showering.
Later we meet his John’s neighbor Jeff Locker, also a rancher and Lucerne grower. When Jeff’s well water went bad Encana installed a reverse osmosis system. Jeff wouldn’t drink the water even after that but his wife did. She now suffers debilitating neuropath which took many expensive trips to doctors in Denver to diagnose. Jeff believes that because the RO plant can’t remove some of the chemicals from the fracking fluids including glycols that the system essentially concentrates the chemicals. He told us it take 5 gallons through the system to make one gallon. That means the chemicals that can’t be filtered out are five times stronger in the final water. I asked him what happens to the brine. He told me it goes into his seep away septic system and back into the ground under his property. I am gobsmacked. In Australia that sort of contamination would need to be taken away to a registered waste management site. He it is left to filter back down into the ‘no longer drinkable’ aquifers. Jeff of course is left to fit the $200 a month additional electricity bill to run the RO plant. Justice clearly doesn’t live in Wyoming.
Louis Meek who lives just down the road had a similar experience with his well water. He turned on the tap in his house and filled a jar with water for me to smell. If I had my eyes closed I would have sworn it was diesel. But it was clear. He and his wife now eat off paper plates as they don’t want to use the dirty water to clean their dishes. Louis also fills the tanks on his caravan with clean water from outside Pavilion so that when his granddaughter visits, as she often does, she can shower in the caravan and avoid the skin rashes and burning eyes. Lewis still showers in it but also gets water delivered by Encana. All up they supply 22 families with bottled water.
When Louis first had problems with his well he drilled a new one. During the drilling (to a point far shallower than the tight sands formation) the well erupted and spurted gas into the air for weeks at high pressure. After much fighting Encana was forced to cement the well. Lewis told me that the production rate at the closest two gas wells about 500 metres from his house went up markedly when the well was finally capped. I asked him why if the bore well was nowhere near the depths of the sands formation could it have an impact like that. His response was that Encana had fracked so much that they had messed everything up down there. Everything is connected he said and they didn’t case the gas wells deep enough to stop the connections happening.
There are only about 200 wells in the Pavilion area. In the scheme of US unconventional gas, it is a drop in the ocean. But the damage caused by one company to an entire community with only a small gas field is almost unimaginable. As much as I am no fan of the regulatory environment in Australia, my gut feeling was that the impact on the lives of the people of Pavilion would never be allowed to happen in NSW. The community and government would not allow it. I say this to Drew Hutton from Lock the Gate who is travelling with me and he just shakes his head and responds, but it is happening right now in Queensland. The same symptoms, the same issues, the same response from the company and the Government.
My hopes for NSW faded further when the day after our visit to Pavilion we see media reports that the O’Farrell Government plans to allow major coal and gas projects to be exempted from the need for an aquifer interference licence under their new aquifer interference policy. Could we be so stupid to make the same mistakes in Australia?
Some people on twitter, I think linked to the gas industry and the NSW Government, have been trying to suggest my trip here is somehow a waste of money and a stunt. But what responsible person would let loose an industry like this without doing their own investigations. Perhaps it is Barry O’Farrell that should be travelling with me to meet with John Fenton, Jeff Locker and Louis Meeks?