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Five Quick Facts on Pavillion

It’s one of those places on the map to which very few people have actually been, but of which very many people have now heard – all thanks to the suddenly international debate over developing massive reserves of clean-burning natural gas from shale.

It’s a town called Pavillion, a community of about 160 located in Fremont County, Wyoming, smack-dab in the middle of the Wind River Indian Reservation. Ironically, there’s no commercial shale to be found around here. But nonetheless, over the past three years, the town has become something of a western capital among anti-shale campaigners in the United States, with folks quick to cite Pavillion as smoking-gun proof that completing a natural gas well can despoil sources of drinking water underground.

Late last week, Pavillion found its way into the news once again – and as we’ve seen, when a story about hydraulic fracturing breaks, it’s often of more interest to media outside of Wyoming than within it.

Writing from his offices in Manhattan, ProPublica author Abrahm Lustgarten blasted out a piece headlined “EPA finds compound used in fracking in Wyoming aquifer.” Much later in the story, we learn “the information released yesterday by the EPA was limited to raw sampling data: The agency did not interpret the findings or make any attempt to identify the source of the pollution.”

In other words, still no proof – and really, not even much of a suggestion — that oil and gas development is in any way responsible for the issues identified by EPA’s most recent groundwater tests. According to the agency, a final report on Pavillion is scheduled to be released later this month. In the meantime, here’s a couple quick facts, for a change, on what’s actually going on in Pavillion, and as important: what’s not.

Nothing presented by EPA this week is any way new or different from what was presented last year except for the fact they drilled their two monitoring wells into a hydrocarbon zone.

  • EPA first started testing water wells in Pavillion back in 2008, holding its first public meeting to release preliminary results in 2009. In 2010, EPA installed two monitoring wells in town, according to the agency’s website. Data released by EPA last week simply represent the findings of phase three and four of that program – findings that do not differ in any material way from what was released during phase one and two last year.

Federal USGS scientists have documented poor water quality in Pavillion going back decades.

  • USGS (1992): “Water quality is variable in the Wind River Formation because this unit has highly variable lithology, permeability, and recharge conditions. Dissolved-solids concentrations in water samples from this formation ranged from 211 to 5,110 mg/L.” (page 82)
  • USGS (1991): “Dissolved-solids concentrations varied greatly for water samples collected from the 34 geologic units inventoried. Dissolved-solids concentrations in all water samples … were 2 to 14 times greater than the Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level of 500 mg/L set by the EPA.” (page 103)
  • USGS (1989): “The ground water in Fremont County was ranked the fourth most vulnerable to pesticide contamination in Wyoming. … Six of the 18 focal pesticides and 1 non-focal pesticide were detected in Fremont County. At least one pesticide was detected in 13 of the 20 wells sampled in Fremont County.” (USGS fact sheet)
  • USGS (1969): “Poor drainage resulting in salt accumulation has been a problem in many irrigated areas on the [Wind River] Reservation. McGreevy and others (1969, p. I58-I66) reported numerous drainage problems associated with the [Wind River aquifer], and Peterson and others (1991, p. 10) reported that seepage and salt accumulation became apparent in the Riverton Reclamation Project area shortly after irrigation started in the 1920s. (page 8)

At no point in the past, and no point last week, has EPA implicated hydraulic fracturing as a source of contamination in Pavillion.

  • “So far the EPA isn’t speculating about where the pollution originated but plans to release a summary of findings later this month. ‘Our scientists are continuing to complete their analysis of those data and we are working hard to complete a report interpreting the findings in the near future,’ EPA spokesman Matthew Allen said in a statement Thursday.” (Associated Press, Nov. 10, 2011)
  • “The contamination could have come from other things, such as cleaning solvents.” (Greg Oberley, lead EPA official in Pavillion, as quoted by Energy Daily [subs. req’d]; Aug. 25, 2009)
  • “In interviews with ProPublica and at a public meeting this month in Pavillion’s community hall, officials spoke cautiously about their preliminary findings. They were careful to say they’re investigating a broad array of sources for the contamination, including agricultural activity. … EPA officials told residents that some of the substances found in their water may have been poured down a sink drain.” (ProPublica, Aug. 25, 2009)
  • “Lind said the [Powder River Basin Resource Council], unlike some nationally based environmental groups, does not allege that fracking fluids are the cause of groundwater contamination anywhere in Wyoming. … ‘We don’t want to accuse them of something they cannot prove. We’re their neighbors.’” (PRBRC director Kevin Lind, quoted by Platts, April 20, 2010)

No compounds attributable to energy development were found by EPA at levels above safe drinking water standards.

Press reports continue to confuse 2-BE and 2-BE phosphate.

  • EPA’s groundwater monitoring system detected trace levels of 2-BE phosphate in nine wells sampled, not 2-BE. 2-BE phosphate cannot be created by the combination of 2-BE and phosphates under the geological conditions found in Pavillion.
  • According to EPA, 2-BE phosphate “is used as both a plasticizer and a flame retardant and may be found in domestic well components including washers, wiring, PVC pipe, and pumps.” (page 14) 2-BE phosphate is not a component of any known fracturing fluid system.
  • According to EPA, the level of 2-BE found in Pavillion is below what’s called the “quantitation limit” — the lowest concentration of something that can be measured (page 112) in all wells tested but one.  In the well where 2-BE was found two of the three EPA labs conducting tests did not recognize 2-BE in samples raising suspicion on the detectability even in minute quantities.
  • More on 2-BE: “The main use is for 2-butoxyethanol is in paints and surface coatings, followed by  household cleaning products and inks. Other products which contain 2-BE include acrylic resin formulations, asphalt release agents, firefighting foam, leather protectors, oil spill dispersants and photographic strip solutions. … 2-Butoxyethanol is relatively non-volatile, miscible in water, readily biodegradable and non-bioaccumulative. There is no apparent risk to any of the environmental compartments.” (United Nations Environment Programme, Feb. 1997)

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