Our latest personal story comes from the Preserve the Beartooth Front video. The finished version of the video will be posted on this site next Wednesday, July 23.
To whet your appetite, the subject of today’s personal story was one of our interviews for the video. Excerpts from this interview contribute to the video’s powerful message, but today we offer a much broader selection of outtakes (see below) that give richness to our subject’s eloquent description of a long and tortuous period of her life spent in the shadow of six wells, working for change in her community and throughout Wyoming.
You can see other personal stories in our series by clicking here.
A personal story: Deb Thomas, Beartooth Front, Wyoming
Deb Thomas is a fourth generation Red Lodge native who has lived most of her life along the Beartooth Front in Montana and Wyoming. After her career in the hospitality industry took her briefly to Arizona, she and her husband Dick Bilodeau found an ideal location and settled on Line Creek near the Shoshone National Forest in Clark, Wyoming.
The spot was perfect for someone whose heart resides on the Beartooth Front, but she says ruefully, “If I had known then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have bought the property.”
Trouble started not long after they moved in. Out for a horseback ride one afternoon, they found an area near their home staked out with red flags. They tried to find out what it meant, but in Wyoming at that time companies could come onto state land, prepare a well pad and put in waste pits before they needed to get a permit. There was no information to be had.
Soon enough, in 2000, the drilling began. The company that did the initial drilling went bankrupt, and was replaced by Windsor Energy, the operator currently running the wells. They drilled four wells on the Bennett Creek pad closest to Deb’s house. Each well was initially drilled as a conventional vertical well, but was eventually drilled horizontally and fracked.
The operator began to have conflicts with the neighbors almost immediately. The first thing Windsor did was block off the natural drainage, which affected irrigation out of Line Creek. There was conflict over the use of the pits. In 2004 and 2005, Windsor opened and closed them for waste dumping. There were no berms to protect the neighbors from runoff, and there were numerous spills and leaks. The shacks on the well pad have continued to vent large amounts of gas into the air for years.
There was trouble with the fourth well, which was linked horizontally to the Crosby pad, located up the hill. Natural geological activity has made the land highly fissured, so Windsor had problems drilling into the faults. This caused loss of drilling fluids, which would come back up the hole, down the county road, and into Line Creek.
Deb and her neighbors continually asked the State to test their water for contamination, but they couldn’t get any action. However, after a lengthy battle, the neighbors were successful in getting the well pad cleaned up. Standing on the pad, Deb says that was a significant triumph but adds knowingly, “You don’t want this pad in your neighborhood. It’s not a matter of what’s going to happen, or if. It’s a matter of when and how often it’s going to happen, because that’s the nature of the beast.”
It happened on a hot August afternoon in 2006.
The Crosby Blowout
Deb was working in her home office with the air conditioner running. She noticed that her nose was running and her eyes were tearing up all day, but she didn’t know why. At about 6:00, her neighbor knocked on the door to tell her he saw the well blowing on the Crosby Pad. So began the worst incident in her 15 years of living with drilling in her community.
(Note: if your Internet connection does not allow you to view the video above, try connecting to the link here. It should load quickly, even with a slower DSL connection.)
What happens when a well blows is that the operator loses control of well emissions. Early that morning while drilling at 9000 feet and performing high pressure drilling, pressure was suddenly lost. The methane in the well began to push mud and condensate back up the shaft. It filled the cracks and fissures in the rock made by fracking, and began to seek other exit routes. The mud began to spew in small geysers all over the hill side. They’d lost control of the well.
Fearing an explosion, Windsor decided to evacuate. Because the area is rural, there were few first responders, and notification to residents was sporadic. Many of the 25 homes in the area evacuated themselves. Deb recalls that you could hear a loud roar, smell the gas, and feel and taste a palpable oily film.
Residents were told to turn off their propane tanks and leave. Deb and Dick had four horses, dogs, cats, and birds, and were told to leave the horses. They went to a local community center, where the first responders brought pizza at about 8:00. The company said they would pay for rooms in town for the residents. Several families took them up on the offer.
Deb stayed. At midnight, the well’s site manager came in and said they’d lost control of the well. Deb says her first question was, “Where is the State?” She recalls with disbelief, “They had this major industrial incident, they had evacuated 25 homes and they hadn’t notified the State.” So Deb contacted the head of the Department of Environmental Protection in Cheyenne herself. Because the area was remote, no state representative got there until the following afternoon.
After three days, the well was brought under control. Residents returned to their homes. Windsor tested nearby wells, and said there was no contamination.
Because of the incident, Windsor received a second notice of violation. This required them to enter the Wyoming remediation program, and finally enabled the public to participate in how remediation from the spill took place. After years of asking for the state to do well testing, residents were finally able to have all nearby water wells tested. Monitoring started, with 100 monitoring points, monitoring for wells at 25 houses and four points on the creek, with testing at a specified number of times annually.
They began to discover terrible problems with water contamination. All nearby aquifers were affected, both shallow and deep. The contamination took place over time as the spill migrated. A well across the creek showed up with contamination a year to the day after the blowout. Contamination included benzene and dozens of other chemicals, both regulated and unregulated. The cleanup in the deepest aquifers was to take place by “natural attenuation” – just waiting for the contamination to work its way out. Today, eight years later, these aquifers are still not clean.
Shockingly, as soon as the well was sealed up, Windsor came in and drilled a second well on the same pad. Since 2006 the company has received two more notices of violation from the State.
A personal transformation
Living in the shadow of these wells for 15 years has been a transformative element in Deb’s life. As problems began to mount, her family’s proximity to the wells changed everything about her day-to-day existence. “Any surface disruption that happens to you, you’re going to have to deal with. You’re going to have to be the person who documents what’s happening. You’re going to have to be a fairly good photographer. You’re going to have to take notes, which means you’re going to have to write everything down. You’re going to have to become a press person, because you’re going to have to…tell the press about it.”
The experience also changed her career. She became an organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC), and has been able to use her knowledge and experience to empower people to work for change, from Pavillion to Powder River to Clark. With her help neighbors and Wyoming residents have become educated about their rights. They’ve been able to demand government accountability, remediation for problems and to delay or block oil or gas development in response to citizen concerns.
Somehow she has managed to stay remarkably upbeat about the future in a world in which the deck is stacked far in favor of the oil and gas industry. She takes personal strength from the fight, and she believes that everyone should be empowered to work for change in whatever way suits them.
She has recently left PRBRC and is looking forward to a continuing role on a larger stage in helping people fight against the harmful effects of oil and gas drilling.
If you feel you’d like to understand more about how drilling in a community affects people’s lives, I invite you to watch the video. Deb’s account of her experience is informative, articulate, passionate and highly personal. Definitely worth a watch.