Judge OKs probe of possible state bias in case of spoiled water

Sep 17, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

A federal judge has approved attorneys in a lawsuit against Encana to move forward with questioning of Jerimiah Rieman, a top official in Gov. Matt Mead's office, to help determine how Encana influenced the Department of Environmental Quality's study of ranchers' groundwater quality east of Pavillion.

Rieman now heads Mead's ENDOW initiative, and served as natural resources policy director during the time of the DEQ study.

Lawsuit continues

Gas industry officials had hoped the DEQ study, which downplayed the Environmental Protection Agency's conclusion that fracking contaminated the Pavillion-area groundwater, would be the final word on the safety of fracking.

Yet a lengthy high-stakes lawsuit continues on behalf of Jeff and Rhonda Locker, who have alleged that not only did Encana contaminate their water to the detriment of Rhonda's health, but then conspired to cover up the pollution.

Touting sovereign immunity, state attorneys sought to block a deposition of Rieman.

However, judge Alan Johnson has ruled that questioning of Rieman is pertinent because "the most relevant information regarding potential bias of the WDEQ report is how the state weighed the input it received from (Encana) when deciding the scope and extent of its study."

Johnson did say, to avoid the state from becoming further embroiled in the lawsuit to which it isn't a party, that the questioning of Rieman should be limited only to information he can provide.

State objections

Attorneys for the state used that argument to again try blocking a deposition, saying that Rieman shouldn't be questioned until the plaintiffs track down and first question any other people who might share Rieman's relevant insights.

Johnson overruled that demand last week, and told the plaintiffs to move forward with their questioning of Rieman.

Johnson did say the scope of the plaintiff's previous subpoena was too broad.

In that subpoena, the plaintiffs announced their intent to question Rieman over the reasons the DEQ narrowed its study to "palatability" of the groundwater.

Sept. 27 deadline

Johnson said the plaintiffs and defense need to agree on a new scope of deposition by Sept. 27.

Former EPA officials also are set to be questioned regarding the reasons the agency ended its study.

E-mails from 2010 between EPA and Encana officials suggest the parties had developed a "framework agreement" concerning the Pavillion issue.

Other e-mails show that Encana staff members frequently were consulted as to how the end of the EPA study was communicated to the public.

One EPA official set to be questioned, Dominic DiGiulio, later criticized the state's study and said that fracking likely has contaminated aquifers in the Pavillion area.

A four-week jury trial is scheduled for November 2018.

Original opinion

The EPA announced in 2011 that fracking likely had contaminated well water in the vicinity of the Pavillion Gas Field and urged residents not to drink it or bathe in it.

The agency never finalized its following study of the issue, but the initial data supported the 2011 statement.

The DEQ came to a mostly opposite conclusion in its more limited study for which Encana provided $1.5 million in funding.

The Town of Pavillion's municipal water supply is not affected by the contamination.

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