On a frosty winter morning in 2005, Louis Meeks was drilling a well on his property in Pavillion, Wyoming. It was his second well – he’d recently discovered that the water in his first was contaminated by a variety of toxic chemicals linked to the natural gas industry. Meeks heard a loud explosion, and, rushing outside, found that the drill had hit a pressurized methane gas lens. After the explosion, the water shot out of the ground, then froze mid-air, serving as an effigy for the contamination issues that plague the town of Pavillion.
Meeks was the first resident to voice concern over the land contamination in and around Pavillion, and has been one of the loudest voices speaking out against it since. Meeks sued Encana – the oil and natural gas company that operates Pavillion Field, the development area stretching across the farms east of the center of town – and nearly lost the deed to his ranch in the process. Today, his water remains a cesspool of hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds. While the company denies any wrongdoing, they provide him with jugs of purified water for his family and even some of the animals on his farm, like the roughly twenty chickens he keeps behind his house. “When you give them water from the well, after a while, the chickens start dying,” Meeks says.
Meeks gathered together other Pavillion residents, and, along with the Powder River Basin Resource Council – a Wyoming non-profit that helps ranchers fight against the negative impacts of oil and gas activity – formed the Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens (PACC). After more than a decade of battle between residents of Pavillion (population 240) and Encana, researchers from Stanford University concluded last year that fracking operations here had in fact contaminated drinking water sources. (Encana disputed the Stanford findings, calling them “speculation or theory.”)
Although this research found that the contamination is a direct result of oil and gas drilling, legally, there is very little these farmers can do about it. When Meeks reached out to Encana after the explosion in his second well, he says he was told he would be facing a lawsuit for accessing minerals he didn’t have the rights to – a baffling problem that many Wyoming residents face: they own their farms, but not the land beneath them.
Pavillion was once part of the Midvale Irrigation Project – an ambitious effort by the Bureau of Reclamation to irrigate land and spur settlement in the region back in the 1920s. The federal government carved pieces off the reservation that they deemed “excess land,” and sold the surface rights to white settlers, declaring the land “split-estate,” meaning that the rights to dig into the surface and extract minerals were sold separately. Today, once the federal government leases these “mineral rights” out to oil and gas companies, they supersede the surface owner’s rights. Thus, oil and gas developers are only required to attempt with measured good faith to get permission from landowners to drill on their land. If such an agreement cannot be made, a bond is posted to the state and the company is given permission to drill wherever and whenever they want, regardless of how it affects the landowner – a process referred to as “condemnation.”
This law has reduced the rights of landowners across the state, and compelled Pavillion residents to accept deals with Encana when the company approached the small community to start fracking wells on their farmland. Members of the local farming community say that they hoped things would work out, that the good faith provided by the gas company was legitimate. (They also noted that they didn’t have much choice, as the gas companies could post a bond and drill regardless of what the farmers said.)
When asked why he allowed Encana to frack wells on his alfalfa farm, Meeks, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, responds with a fit of rage: “What choice did I have? They was going to condemn me and then drill anyway.”
John Fenton, the president of PACC, works closely with activist groups across the country, as well as other ranchers in Wyoming whose livelihoods have been decimated by the detrimental effects of oil and gas extraction. Fenton is a former welder who often worked on contract for the oil and gas industry, before pursuing this new path. “I began to see my neighbors and friends suffer the impacts of oil and gas development,” he says. “I knew that I could not live with my conscience if I made money from suffering.”
These issues of “split estates” are not unique to Pavillion, and the risk of contamination is high wherever there is fracking activity. In October of 2004, Doug and Genie MacMullan purchased a farm in Deaver, Wyoming, three hours north of Pavillion, near the Montana border. They expected to have a simple life where they could raise their goats. Unbeknownst to them, there were two oil wells on their eastern prairie with a pipeline that ran between them. This pipeline burst in 2010 and leaked for more than two weeks, allowing the thick, tar-like substance to bubble from the ground and cover the prairie where their goats roamed.
Goats are the MacMullan’s main source of income, and when sixty percent of their herd, about two hundred of them, died unexpectedly, it left the couple financially crippled as they tried to understand what had happened. While they believe the mass deaths of their goats were linked to the broken pipeline and resulting leaking neurotoxins, they found no way to prove this, and their financial situation made it impossible to uncover any evidence. They also could not insist the oil company stop production, as they do not own the mineral rights on their land.
All over Wyoming, residents are feeling the effects of oil and natural gas drilling.
Upon entering the small town of Midwest, Wyoming, population 418 and surrounded by gas and oil wells, roadside signs warn against exposure to hydrogen sulfide, a deadly neurotoxin. In the summer of 2016, a school in Midwest was closed for the year due to a gas leak and students were bused more than forty miles away to the city of Casper each day.
Pavillion residents Jeff and Rhonda Locker learned in 2015 that they had been drinking contaminated water for over ten years. The gas company offered to install a reverse-osmosis filter in a shed adjacent to their house, which would clean out the diesel range organics found in the water. However, the investigation by the EPA also showed the presence of neurotoxins in the water, which the filter is incapable of removing.
For years, Rhonda Locker battled neuropathy, a condition that leaves her in excruciating pain, and is brought on by the years of exposure to toxins. So they fled their home on the Locker farm in the summer of 2015, after more than a decade of exposure, for a house three miles up the road, clear away from any development.
These farmers have experienced the devastating consequences of activities conducted on the land they live off of – activities that they were not involved in, and in many cases never authorized. Although oil and gas production in the area has decreased overall in the past few years, the effects continue to ripple throughout the land, and, in many cases, will continue to follow these farmers for the rest of their lives.