Encana blasts EPA report linking fracking to Wyoming water pollution

In a telephone conference with journalists this morning, officials of the Canadian energy giant Encana sharply disputed an EPA draft report that linked the company's gas drilling operations in Wyoming to contamination of residents' drinking water, calling the report badly flawed and demanding an independent review of the study's findings.

"The EPA made critical mistakes and misjudgments at almost every step of the process," said David Stewart, Encana's top environmental officer. "We believe the results should be reviewed by independent parties outside EPA."

The pushback wasn't exactly unexpected. The three-year EPA analysis of drinking water quality around Pavilion, Wyoming, represents one of the first instances in which the agency has established what it considers a link between drilling involving hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and chemicals found in monitoring wells that may have contaminated groundwater. It's not the only case of contamination the agency has documented, but the Pavilion study (unveiled right before Colorado adopted tough new fracking disclosure rules) quickly became national news -- and seemed to take industry spokesmen by surprise.

Encana officials maintain that the "link" to their operations is dubious at best. Stewart and others defended the structural integrity of Encana's Pavilion wells, which are shallower than most fracking rigs because of the danger of hitting pockets of methane below. The methane detected in locals' water can be attributed to water wells that were drilled too deep, Stewart insisted, not migration of fracking fluids.

As for the brew of toxic chemicals the EPA detected with its own deep monitoring well, Stewart responded that several of the compounds weren't used in Encana's hydraulic fracturing operations at all. He suggested that some were byproducts of materials the EPA used in constructing its well or occurred naturally in the area; the one single compound that could have come from fracking "didn't produce a clear chemical signature," he noted. "There appear to have been some quality assurance problems with the study." He described the project as having "morphed" from its original objective of finding the cause of the foul-smelling water into "more of a research project" focused on fracking.

Fracking boosters (including Governor John Hickenlooper, a geologist in a former life) insist that the fracking chemicals are injected at too great a distance from groundwater to easily migrate there, particularly if well bores are properly maintained and sealed. Whether Encana can persuade the EPA to set up an independent panel to review the Pavilion findings may depend, in part, on the kind of public comment -- and outcry -- the EPA receives before the comment period closes at the end of January.

Three years ago, President-elect Barack Obama tapped incumbent Colorado senator Ken Salazar to become his Secretary of the Interior. Read Alan Prendergast's "The Zen of Ken" here.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast