PAVILLION, Wyo. – Rhonda and Jeff Locker enjoyed hosting friends and family at their farm home in Pavillion, Wyoming. The 56 year old said she took pride in serving her guests water from the well on their land.
“It was the best I’d ever tasted,” Rhonda Locker said.
That changed in the early 1990s when the couple began to suspect something was wrong with their water. It would intermittently run black and release a strange odor, they said.
The Lockers were not alone. Similar complaints came from other residents near Pavillion – a town with little more than a couple hundred residents and an oil field.
Decades later, officials still can’t definitively identify the source of the contamination.
The Lockers, however, believe they know who is responsible. They are taking an oil and gas giant to court, claiming the company polluted their water and lied to them about it. They are seeking compensation after Rhonda Locker became ill.
In 2014, the couple filed suit against Encana Corp. for negligence, and the couple claimed the company convinced them to drink unsafe water and did not communicate water problems with them, according to court documents. The case is ongoing in U.S. District Court.
Encana officials deny any wrongdoing.
Couple tries to identify cause of mystery illness
The Lockers’ brown farmhouse sits between tall apple trees and has a view of the Rocky Mountains. Pavillion residents have learned to coexist with the dozens of gas wells on their hay and barley fields.
When the couple noticed changes in their water, they contacted Tom Brown Inc., a company that built and operated gas wells on their land. The company sent a hydrologist to test the Lockers’ wells.
The company assured them the contamination was not from their oil and gas activities, and there were no petroleum by-products in their water – and the Lockers believed them, they said. Tom Brown Inc. paid for a reverse osmosis water filtration unit for the home. In exchange, the couple signed an agreement releasing the company of any future liability.
“We wanted to believe them,” Rhonda Locker said. “I so badly wanted water to drink out of the faucet again. It was no fun to always bring jugs of water home, always having them on the laundry, on the washer machine – everywhere. And our house wasn’t that big, so It just got to me.”
Jeff Locker and his son still did not drink the water because they did not like the taste of it, but Rhonda Locker did.
“I just wanted to be able to take my vitamins and brush my teeth out of my own bathroom sink,” she said.
Four months after installing the filtration system, Rhonda Locker became ill. Her arms and legs tingled, she could not think clearly and she struggled to walk.
The couple became determined to find answers.
Rhonda Locker sought out numerous doctors, none of whom could give her a clear diagnosis for her mystery illness.
It was her declining health that lead the couple to file suit against Encana, the company that bought Tom Brown Inc.
EPA study suggests connection
The Environmental Protection Agency began an investigation into Pavillion groundwater in 2009, and it released a draft of its conclusions in 2011, pointing to the oil and gas industry as a possible culprit for the contamination.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry informed the couple their groundwater showed signs of contamination in 2010 and suggested the couple use an alternate water supply. This was the first time the Lockers were informed of specific contamination in their water since the problem began in 1992, they said.
It was not the first time someone knew of the contamination, however. According to court documents, Tom Brown Inc. tested the Lockers’ well in 2001 and found toluene – a harmful solvent oil and gas companies use that can cause “central nervous system depression and decreased memory,” according to World of Chemicals.
The EPA’s report confirmed Pavillion groundwater was contaminated with benzene, methane and other petroleum by-products. The lead author of the report said the contamination was most likely due to leakage from unlined pits carrying oil and gas wastewater.
Encana refutes the draft study, arguing that it was flawed science. They deny the chemicals in the Lockers’ well came from their activities, citing a number of other possible sources, in their official response to the EPA findings.
The company declined to comment on the court case since it is ongoing.
EPA’s study causes scrutiny
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., in a statement called the EPA’s draft study part of the agency’s “witch hunt” aimed at harming the oil and gas industry.
“The Obama Administration has done everything it possibly can to destroy domestic production of oil, gas and coal,” Inhofe told the Senate floor in 2012.
The issue has become part of a national debate over the potential effects of hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas industry.
The industry is a boon to Wyoming, which is one of the top 10 oil and gas producers in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal, crude oil and natural gas are produced in all but one of the state’s counties.
While the EPA said it “stands behind its work and its data” in a 2013 news release, the agency handed over the groundwater investigation to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. Encana donated $1.5 million to the Wyoming Natural Resource Foundation for the state to fund the investigation and for a groundwater education campaign, according to the same release.
The state released a report in 2015 “discrediting” the EPA’s earlier report, according to a statement from the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The state’s report contended hydraulic fracturing had most likely not impacted the water supply.
The state of Wyoming did not return requests for comment.
Senior officials at the EPA had decided not to finalize the draft and hand the investigation over to Wyoming because of the “intense pressure from the oil and gas industry and the state of Wyoming,” said Dominic DiGiulio, the lead author of the EPA’s initial study.
“The findings affect hydraulic fracturing across the country,” said DiGuilio, a researcher at Stanford University. “That’s why the oil and gas industry was very defensive about the findings out there.”
DiGuilio released results from an independent, peer-reviewed investigation with Stanford University in 2016. It also concluded that the water contamination was due to the industry’s disposal of fracking waste into unlined pits.
In 2016, the EPA released a comprehensive national report that didn’t offer a conclusive answer to whether hydraulic fracturing effects water, and it suggested more testing.
Couple still has unanswered questions
As Rhonda and Jeff Locker sit on the back porch on a warm summer evening, they still want answers.
The know there was something wrong with the water. In fact, the state of Wyoming started giving cisterns to residents with contaminated water in 2012. They just haven’t proven what caused it.
Without her medication, Rhonda Locker can’t walk properly. Her cognitive problems are becoming more severe. She feels much older than she should in her 50s, she said.
“It’s always, ‘Don’t hurt grandma, watch her legs,’ and stuff like that,” she said. “I did picture how much I was going to run around with them and do all these things with them because I was so active, and it didn’t happen that way.”
“In retrospect, if there’s anything I could change and go back,” Jeff Locker said. “I’d just soon not ever have heard the name Encana and Tom Brown.”
To see the full News21 report on “Troubled Water,” go to troubledwater.news21.com on Aug. 14.