For about a decade, residents in Pavillion, Wyoming, have wanted to know what’s wrong with their water. The tiny town is surrounded by more than 1,000 gas wells drilled into sandstone, which has been fractured with a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals to release the gas trapped inside. Pavillion was something of a fracking frontier: In the mid-2000s, when residents started to complain of foul-looking water that smelled like gasoline, the American shale-gas revolution was about to explode. The EPA agreed to investigate the Pavillion case, and in 2011 released a draft report that found high levels of carcinogens and at least one chemical linked to fracking in two test wells. Then, in 2013, the agency abruptly passed the inquiry off to state regulators, whose industry-funded reviews have been inconclusive.
But the scientist who was in charge of the EPA’s investigation refused to abandon Pavillion, and now he has evidence that a major aquifer system that underlies Pavillion and the nearby Wind River reservation was contaminated by chemicals used in the fracking process. Dominic DiGiulio (now a scholar at Stanford University) and his research partner Robert Jackson released a peer-reviewed study in late March based on an analysis of data collected by federal and state officials, some of which they obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. In other words, they finished the study EPA should have completed. They found “a slew of chemicals, all of which are known to be used for hydraulic fracturing,” said DiGiulio, which amount to “direct lines of evidence of impact.” One specific finding was high levels of chloride, likely from the salt solutions used in fracking fluid.
“If I were a resident, I’d be angry,” said Jackson of the EPA’s failure to complete its own investigation. Politics might have had something to do with it, he suggested. At the same time scientists were studying Pavillion, the Obama administration was deepening its relationship with the natural-gas industry, which it embraced as an alternative to coal and as economic booster. The result was tension between scientists in the field and senior EPA officials: DiGiulio disagreed with the move to pass off the inquiry to Wyoming, a decision that he says was “not made by scientists.” Meanwhile, environmentalists saw Pavillion as part of a pattern: Around the same time the EPA abandoned its research there, it closed several other investigations into pollution from natural-gas production.
In a much-criticized, 998-page draft review of the safety of the fracking boom released in 2015, the EPA reported that the practice had no “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” The study did not consider Pavillion, nor serious allegations of contamination in Dimrock, Pennsylvania, and Parker County, Texas. In January, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board criticized the agency for failing to “clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water) nor the deåfinitions of ‘systemic,’ ‘widespread,’ or ‘impacts,’” and it recommended the agency consider local-level contamination more seriously. “I don’t think EPA looked at this issue very carefully, unfortunately,” DiGiulio said of the draft study, though he’s hopeful the final report will reflect the concern from the advisory board.