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June 27, 2011

[High County News] There are few things a family needs more than fresh drinking water. And Louis Meeks, a burly Vietnam War veteran with deep roots in the central Wyoming grasslands, had abundant water on his 40-acre alfalfa farm, which is speckled with apple and plum trees, on a rural dirt road five miles from the town of Pavillion. For 35 years, he drew it clear and sweet from a well near the front door of the plain, eight-room ranch house that he and his wife, Donna, own. The water was so good that neighbors used to pull off the road to fill plastic jugs for themselves.

But in the spring of 2005, Meeks’ water turned fetid. His tap ran cloudy, and the filmy water shimmered with rainbow swirls. The scent was sharp, like gasoline. When he ran the pump for 20 minutes, the pipes would shudder and run dry.

The area’s complicated geology includes some pockets of bad water, but Meeks suspected a different cause: industrial pollution. Pavillion lies in the middle of Wyoming’s huge gas patch, which has thousands of  wells. Since the mid-1990s, more than 200 gas wells have been drilled right around the tiny town, which is home to 174 people. The drilling has left abandoned toxic waste pits scattered across the landscape. But Meeks believed the gas wells themselves were to blame. They extend far underground, considerably below his water well, which was a couple of hundred feet deep. The more Meeks learned, the more he was alarmed by one especially controversial step in the drilling process. The industry calls it hydraulic fracturing: the high-pressure injection of water and a brew of chemicals into a well to break apart rock formations and release the gas inside them. (read)

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