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ATSDR investigates the groundwater of Pavillion, WY

Pavillion, WY, a community about 200 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

Pavillion, WY, a community about 200 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

Louis Meeks beckoned his guests over to lean over his sink.

“Smell it,” he said over the pouring water. “Do you want a drink?”

No, they did not. The water had a pungent, acidic scent. Mr. Meeks said it has smelled that way since the local natural gas company began using new techniques to find gas underground.

His guests were from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Based on water sampling from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and analysis from ATSDR, they made their recommendation clear: avoid the water. No drinking, no cooking, and if you shower with it, open the windows.

ATSDR’s August 2010 recommendation came after scientists looked at EPA test results of dozens of private wells in Pavillion, WY, a community of 126 about 200 miles from Yellowstone National Park. Some of the well water in Pavillion had methane gas in it, leading to a potential for explosions if the gas accumulated in small spaces, such as bathrooms or laundry rooms with no vent. The well water also contained very low levels of petroleum hydrocarbons, the health effects of which are uncertain. Most of the water also had extremely high levels of sodium and sulfur, which can cause high blood pressure and stomach upset.

EPA is still looking into the source of the contamination, including the possibility that it may be related to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a process that natural gas companies use to extract gas or oil from rock. Some of the chemicals, such as the sodium and sulfur, are expected from the natural rock formations in the West.

What is known is that no one should drink the water. With the ATSDR recommendation in place, the city of Pavillion was able to get a continued supply of bottled water for the residents until they can be hooked up to city water or find another permanent solution. The bottled water is provided by EnCana, the natural gas company that employs many of Pavillion’s residents and owns and explores the oil fields in the area.

The town of Pavillion provides municipal water to its residents through eight groundwater wells.

The town of Pavillion provides municipal water to its residents through eight groundwater wells.

Four generations of John Fenton’s family live on his ranch in rural Pavillion. At first, Fenton didn’t notice a problem with his water, but after his well water was identified as contaminated, he began hauling water for his family from a friend’s house 30 miles away. After about two weeks of drinking the hauled water, the funny smell and taste of his own water became obvious. He’s been working for three years with neighbors to try to find a solution to the problem.

Hearing from EPA and ATSDR that the well water was contaminated was refreshing after years of feeling as though his and his neighbors’ concerns were not being heard. “Not only did it validate the feelings we were having, but we got some real answers,” Fenton said. “It was a good start to heading off some potential health impacts.”

During the investigation, ATSDR regional representative Chris Poulet and medical officer Dr. Michelle Watters spent hours getting to know the Wyoming residents and visiting their homes, along with EPA partners, to give thorough, individualized analyses of their well water. Watters said she appreciated being able to speak with people in their homes and that it added to the trust between the families and ATSDR. She said it also gave her a chance to explain complicated information, especially about health concerns.

“As a federal agency involved with public health, our responsibility is to present clear information,” Watters said. “When people are discussing their concerns or fears, it’s a privilege that they have trusted you enough to share these issues --particularly when you do not always have the answers they want to hear. The people of Pavillion were very welcoming.”

John Fenton and his family, now drinking the bottled water from EnCana, finally feel as if they are getting answers and solutions. He said the individual attention from ATSDR made a big difference, especially in an area where many people are wary of the federal government.

“I think the fact that Michelle Watters and Chris Poulet were willing to come and sit in someone’s home with them, and take the time on a private, one-on-one basis to explain and answer questions was huge for people here,” he said.

“To have the people who have the knowledge come sit in your home and tell you this is what you are facing and this is what you have to do – I can’t think of a better way it could have been done.”

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