- Associated Press - Thursday, September 27, 2012

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The meaning of reams of new data from ground-water testing in a remote Wyoming gas field where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sparked concern last year will be a matter of interpretation.

Does the new science shore up damnation of hydraulic fracturing — the petroleum industry practice of blasting water, sand and chemicals deep beneath the water table? Or does it refute criticism of the technique as too much anxious hand-wringing?

No one is making either claim yet.

The U.S. Geological Survey on Wednesday released tables showing the amounts of dozens of various chemicals in the ground water below the Pavillion area of west-central Wyoming, but there was no analysis accompanying the data.

The information, from testing in late April, follows similar tests last year, when the EPA linked contaminants in two water wells to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The new testing shows much lower levels of the carcinogen benzene than what the EPA reported. However, only one of the two wells was tested this time.

With no official interpretation as a guide, the pro-industry and environmental groups that weighed in almost instantly on the sensational EPA draft report in December were conspicuously quiet this time. Even Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead — who actively sought the new testing and whose own employees had a hand in it — passed on saying anything about what the data actually meant.

“We will be guided by science in the way we react to the investigation of impacts on water outside of Pavillion,” Mr. Mead said in a mild prepared statement.

Benzene is a hydrocarbon commonly associated with oil and gas development. Last year’s EPA testing showed benzene at almost 50 times the recommended EPA limit. The new data — from tests that involved the state, the USGS, the EPA, and the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Indian tribes — show benzene at 3 percent of the recommended EPA limit.

But researchers this time around decided they couldn’t extract enough water for a reliable sample from the well that showed the highest amount of benzene last year.

In the well the researchers did use, the amount of any benzene in the ground water was too small to be detected last year. In that sense, the results for benzene this year are in line with last year’s.

The latest data is generally “consistent with groundwater monitoring data previously released,” EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said by email.

The EPA has said repeatedly that the findings in Pavillion, where natural gas and drilling for it occur at a relatively shallow level, in no way can be applied to fracking that occurs in other geologic formations elsewhere.

Encana Corp., the Calgary, Alberta, company that operates the Pavillion gas field, also declined to comment on the meaning of the data. However, company spokesman Doug Hock said the fact that one of the wells didn’t produce enough water for the new testing casts doubt on the previous results.

EPA’s wells are improperly constructed,” he said by email.

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