CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- People who have been living with tainted well water in central Wyoming voiced concern Friday that they were excluded from a deal that has the state taking over further study of groundwater pollution from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Northern Arapaho Tribe raised concerns after the agreement was announced Thursday between the EPA, Wyoming and Encana Corp., owner of the Pavillion gas field. The Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone Tribe both live on the Wind River Reservation, which surrounds the drilling area.
The EPA theorized in 2011 that the petroleum industry practice of hydraulic fracturing may have contaminated the groundwater near the town of Pavillion. The EPA now says it won't issue a final report or have outside experts review the research as originally planned.
Instead, Wyoming will take over the study in Encana's field of about 125 gas wells, with help from $1.5 million from Encana.
"We went to EPA for help after the state of Wyoming and Encana refused to address the public health impacts of unbridled development in the Pavillion area," said John Fenton, chairman of the group Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens. "Now Encana has bought their way back in and is working with the state on a strategy to cover up the mess they've created. Our government's priority is clearly to protect industry rather than Wyoming citizens, our health and our property values."
Gov. Matt Mead said Friday he has been talking with affected residents and understands their suspicion. But he said the EPA has recognized that Wyoming is best positioned to act.
"I think it's right that they are concerned, and I think it's even appropriate that they are skeptical," Mead said in a phone interview. "And I think it's up to the state in leading this investigation to do it in a way that addresses their concerns."
Mead met with the affected residents and said many of them have expressed gratitude for his interest in having state agencies resolve their problems.
Some people in the Pavillion area said their water began to reek of chemicals in 2005, around the same time that Encana began to employ hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to boost production of nearby gas wells. Fracking encourages the flow of oil and gas underground by splitting open rock with a high-pressure mix of water, fine sand and chemicals pumped into wells.
Fenton and others say Wyoming agencies didn't do enough to address their complaints, so they asked the EPA to investigate. The EPA announced in December 2011 its finding that fracking could have played a role in some pollution found in two wells it drilled to sample groundwater.
A statement Thursday from the Northern Arapaho Tribe expressed concern that the state and EPA worked out the agreement without reaching out to the tribe.
Darrell O'Neal, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said it's probably a good thing that Pavillion issues are getting attention at the highest levels.
"The governor and his associates in D.C. need to do a better job involving residents of Fremont County and representatives of tribal government in the process," he said.
Ronald Oldman, co-chairman of the tribe's business council, said EPA staff in Washington had a legal duty to consult with the tribe, "and that didn't happen as part of their dialogue with the governor."
The tribe also expressed concern that Wyoming's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will play a key role in future study despite a federal court injunction more than 40 years old that bars the commission from trying to exert any authority over minerals on tribal lands.
Other local residents say the EPA's decision to back away from further research, in favor of Wyoming taking the lead again, puts them back where they started before the federal agency got involved.
"The state of Wyoming is already on record, through action and inaction, as denying that Pavillion's groundwater contamination is a cause for concern," said a Pavillion-area farmer, Jeff Locker.
The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees oil and gas development in the state, will review the integrity of Pavillion gas wells and whether pollution could have seeped out of old drilling waste pits.
Last year, commission Supervisor Tom Doll told an audience he believed Pavillion-area residents were mostly motivated by greed. Doll resigned soon thereafter.
The new study also will re-examine previous samples from 14 domestic water wells within a quarter mile of the Encana wells. The state may also take new samples from those wells.
Mead said the state will hire outside experts to review the work and said Encana's funding won't taint the findings.
"Encana has committed money. They don't get to say they, 'Well, we will commit it if this is the result,'" Mead said.
Encana spokesman Doug Hock said one focus of the study going forward will be why the local well water tastes foul — something company officials believed should have been the focus all along.
Hock pointed out that the EPA has acknowledged that its research has failed to establish how fracking might have caused contaminants to seep upward from the relatively shallow drilling zone to the aquifer that feeds local water wells.
"It needs to go back to looking at these specific water wells and what specifically is going on there. That's where the science has led us, and that's the proper approach," Hock said.