By Sarah Pridgeon
It could have been solved so easily if everyone had just played nice, says Senator Ogden Driskill. If the City of Gillette had chosen to be a good neighbor, he wouldn’t be warning that the state could freeze funding for the Madison Pipeline water project – and landowners near Carlile would have a water supply for the winter.
Driskill has been pushing Gillette to help landowners whose wells ran dry or became acidic last fall.
“I met with the Gillette City Council in January and the long and short of it is that I asked the council and their project manager bluntly to sit down with neighboring landowners up there and try to deal with the well issue. At that time, they said no problem and that they were dealing with people,” he says.
Driskill was later assured that progress was being made. But when the senator asked how many landowners were involved in discussions, he was told the city was only working with one.
“I said, well there’s a lot more than one,” he says. “I said, it’s absolutely imperative that, when you’re neighbors with somebody and you’ve got a problem like this, you communicate with them and work with them. Dealing with one landowner up there is not my idea of communication.”
“Shortly after the meeting, I got a letter from Gillette,” he continues, adding that the letter was “absolutely scathing” and claimed the city asked him to do certain things and had never heard back.
Driskill replied to it, saying that, “Until they communicate with the landowners, I don’t intend to do anything at this point in time.”
The City of Gillette sees things differently. According to City Administrator Patrick Davidson, the landowners have not actually asserted directly to the city that there are issues with their wells and the information they have received has come through the DEQ and Senator Driskill.
“[The landowners] sent a letter that said, don’t discharge any water on our land – that’s where they left it. We’ve not been contacted by the landowners directly to ever have a meeting with them,” Davidson says.
“Ogden Driskill has acted as the go-between, between the landowners and the DEQ and the landowners and the state engineer, but we’ve never been contacted directly by any of the landowners, an attorney for the landowners or a representative for the landowners.”
Nevertheless, since the issue with the wells was first identified, Driskill believes the City of Gillette has closed its shutters against the Crook County landowners and those who have spoken on their behalf.
“This thing could have been solved quite easily early on,” he says. “They just flat refused to do the right thing. They brought their lawyers out and they’ve been tough the whole time and the end result…is that these delays could easily cost them in the millions of dollars – and that doesn’t include any clean-up.”
There are a number of ways the Legislature could intervene, he says; the Select Water Committee voted in January that the remainder of the funding for the Madison Pipeline will be tied up pending the results of Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) testing.
“That funding is not closed out; they could freeze it, they could take it away, they could put more strings on it,” he says.
The state, Driskill declares, has been patient and generous with Gillette. At one point early on, it did look like a solution had been found; all parties had agreed to hook the affected landowners onto the Madison pipeline on a temporary basis until somebody “pitched a fit” at the idea of Gillette taking responsibility for the dry and acidic wells and the deal fell apart.
“We are in no way accusing or saying that they’ve caused anything but, should they have, who knows what this thing will end up at. In my terms, it’s been very poorly handled by the City of Gillette,” he says.
“That doesn’t just count the wells – that counts pipeline construction and dealing with landowners that the pipeline crosses. I’ve had literally dozens of complaints from landowners on how they were treated and handled on the pipeline construction.”
According to Davidson, however, the City of Gillette is simply not in a position to make any decisions until the DEQ releases the results of its testing.
“We are waiting for the DEQ to make a determination as to the cause of any well issues that have been articulated by the landowners. Once we have that scientific information, that puts us in a position to determine whether or not the city played any role in what has been alleged to be an acidification of the wells,” he explains.
“That is still out there and, as Senator Driskill knows, that’s a process that’s being undertaken right now by the DEQ.”
Once that information becomes available, he continues, the City of Gillette will be able to determine whether or not it played a role in the alleged issue and what other steps may need to be taken. Until that time, he says, the city is in a holding pattern.
“[The DEQ has] hired an expert that everybody has agreed to, who is going to review the well data for the wells that are there, is going to review the geologic information for the area, is going to review the data for 50-plus wells in the area that have been tested,” Davidson says.
“Once that information is compiled, then the DEQ will make a determination as to the cause of it.”
With information about the cause in hand, says Davidson, the city is in a position to visit more about the issue and answer questions such as: should those Madison wells be put online? What kind of hookups should occur, if any, for the landowners?
“Clearly, if we didn’t have a role in that, then there’s probably a different result than if the city somehow, some way would be accountable for these wells,” he says.
“Until we have a better understanding of that, it’s kind of speculative at best as to what the city could or could not do to hook up the wells to the Madison.”
However, Driskill says, it’s highly likely that the results of DEQ testing will be inconclusive. He notes that Gillette has pointed to acid fracking, oil wells and uranium mining as potential reasons, but points out that none of these are happening in the area near Carlile; the senator also doubts the suggestion that it was caused by the recent droughts.
“These wells are old wells, they are stable, they’ve been through a number of droughts just fine and, all of a sudden, overnight they run dry and you have an aquifer turn up that’s got acid in it,” he says.
But even if the results are inconclusive, he believes Gillette should do right by the landowners.
“There is absolute proof, and then there is doing things the right way,” he says.
“The right thing says that, at a bare minimum, you try to be a good neighbor and provide them with water on a temporary basis until something has been proven – and they weren’t even willing to do that.”
That’s a great way to create a relationship with your neighbor that won’t see you calling in any favors in the future, says the senator.
“They’ve really created ill will between Crook and Campbell County,” he says. “This has done nothing to foster any good feelings between the two counties.”
It’s not too late to make things right, Driskill believes.
“I’m not talking about giving the farm away. I’m talking about sitting down with the landowners and saying: what can we do to make things easier so that we can all work better together? That’s what neighbors do on ranches and farms – you can either hate your neighbor next door or you can be friends with them,” he says.
“Gillette needs the water and [the Madison Pipeline] is a good project – but they need to learn how to play well with others.”