Fracking: Polluted water in Wyoming could spell trouble in Colorado

The release of an EPA report detailing suspected groundwater contamination from gas drilling operations in Wyoming comes just as Colorado is weighing tougher restrictions and wider disclosures about the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" process -- and may serve as Exhibit A for environmental groups opposing the practice. All of which should make for a lively session at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission meeting on Monday.

The EPA draft report comes after three years of resident complaints about fouled drinking water around the town of Pavilion in west-central Wyoming, where the gas giant Encana operates 169 production wells. Monitoring wells detected numerous chemical compounds used in the fluids energy companies inject into the ground to force out pockets of oil and gas, including benzene and toluene. "Given the area's complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to groundwater contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking water wells over time," the agency noted in a statement on the report.

Environmental activists contend that the Pavilion results show that the industry's claims about the safety of the process are overblown. While supporters of fracking say the chemicals are injected thousands of feet below aquifers and can't possibly reach them, the Wyoming wells were fracked at a shallow level, around a thousand feet below the surface, and the casing that's supposed to protect the groundwater went down less than 400 feet.

But at least Wyoming officials know what toxic chemicals the company was using. The Cowboy State passed a law last year requiring the companies to disclose their fracking recipes, while Colorado is still mulling over such a measure.

The Wyoming contamination is still under investigation, and industry spokesmen maintain that the situtation isn't typical of the way fracking is conducted in Colorado or elsewhere. But it does make you wonder if Governor John Hickenlooper's declaration a few months ago that groundwater contamination from fracking is "almost inconceivable" will prove to be -- well, almost as hard to swallow as some Pavilion well water.

Click to check out our earlier coverage on the fracking industry's intensive lobbying campaign and the state's efforts to allay fears.

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