Driskill defiant in face of criticism over well issue

Senator says flap with Gillette officials has turned ugly

By Sarah Pridgeon

Senator Ogden Driskill has vowed to continue his push for the City of Gillette to provide temporary relief to landowners near Carlile whose wells are now producing undrinkable water, despite the war of words now taking place over the issue.

Around 55 wells in the area are thought to be producing water that is non-potable under EPA standards. The Department of Environmental Quality has yet to confirm the cause of the problem.

Having been contacted by some of the affected landowners, the senator attempted to negotiate with the City of Gillette to hook four of them onto the Madison Water pipeline on a temporary basis. After meeting with resistance, he tacked an amendment on the omnibus water bill that would have forced Gillette to allow up to 200 new taps.

“The only reason the amendment came about was that we could get no relief whatsoever,” he says.

Gillette turned down the funding, citing concerns over the repercussions of the amendment’s wording. Since that time, says Driskill, things have turned ugly – but he won’t let that deter him.

“When you have a pipeline going through their yard with potable water and you’re going to deny them safe drinking water, we’ve got a problem. The state has paid for more than two thirds of this; fairness says we’re going to take care of it,” Driskill says. “I’ve thrown everything I can at the wall to try to get anything to stick, and their answer has been steadfastly a no.”

If they’d provided those emergency taps, the situation would not have derailed to this extent, he points out, stressing that his original request was not intended to suggest that Gillette’s work on the well field for its water project caused the Carlile wells to sour.

“To this point, I’ve never accused Gillette of anything – I’ve just tried to fix a problem. All I’ve tried to do is solve a good-neighbor problem and provide water,” he says.

The state forgave $40 million of the loan for the first well field, Driskill says, and an additional $70 million of forgiveness was included in the latest bill.

“There’s a reason for the State of Wyoming to step in…and say we went above and beyond,” he says.

He points out that state money was used to purchase 70 acres in Crook County for the water project. The land was placed in the city’s name and taken off the tax rolls because governmental entities are exempt to taxation.

It may seem like a small amount of land, but the senator compares it to the Oneok natural gas pipeline and suggests that the proceeds from the improved land could have brought in up to half a million dollars per year in tax revenue he believes Crook County “really ought to be entitled to”.

Driskill strongly disputes some of the claims that he says are being made about his conduct by Gillette city officials. He believes things are becoming personal.

“They’ve taken a bunch of stuff out of context,” he says.

For instance, he has been called out for taking on this issue solely because his daughter owns land in the affected area. However, he says their well is not among those experiencing issues and at this time they have no interest in paying Gillette for water.

He further points out that he has always been open about his daughter’s place of residence. The Wyoming Legislature has a clear ethics code that demands legislators declare any potential conflict of interest and whether or not they still plan to vote on an issue, he says.

“I very clearly, when I ran the amendment, specified that my son-in-law and daughter were a part of that group of people and there was potential they could be one of the 200,” he says.

Driskill also takes umbrage with claims from Senator Michael Von Flatern that he gave Gillette no warning the amendment was coming. He’s tired of hearing that it came out of left field, he says.

“They insinuate that this amendment just came out of nowhere,” he says. “The City of Gillette, at four Select Water Committee meetings in a row, have been on the agenda to deal with this issue. At all four meetings, they have been asked what they are going to do to deal with this issue and their answer has been: no.”

At the December meeting in Casper, Driskill claims the meeting was adjourned and he, along with fellow legislators, the Mayor of Gillette Louise Carter-King and the Gillette City Manager Pat Davidson, came up with a solution: to spend around $80,000 to connect affected landowners to the waterline.

“Gillette’s delegation got up and left the room and told us, no deal,” he says. “That was immediately prior to the session.”

Driskill says he told both the mayor and city manager personally that the amendment was coming. He also claims he sat with Von Flatern on a conference call with Davidson and talked about what could be done to ensure the amendment was palatable.

“Their quote was: you don’t have the horsepower to pass it, you do anything you feel like,” he says.

This prediction did not pan out and the amendment was passed.

Driskill admits that his critics have quoted him correctly as saying the amendment was punitive, but that it was only punitive when he first drafted it.

“When it passed and went to conference committee, and I was chair of the conference committee, I then reached out to Gillette,” he says. He asked, he claims, what changes the city would like before it was forwarded to the governor.

The senator produces as evidence an email chain in which Von Flatern asks city representatives for input on Driskill’s question. In response, the city requested four items, including that only the eight-inch potable waterline running from the pump station be tapped into and a cap of 50,000 gallons per month be placed on individual use.

“I gave them all four points – every single thing they asked for,” he says, noting that he did increase the cap from the original suggestion.

“That’s the point I’m probably the most proud of: once I’d won, I had no reason to do anything,” he says. “I could have left it as a bad deal, but I reached out and did everything I could to fix it – and in return, they denied their own citizens water so that they could spite Crook County.”

Driskill reiterates that, while he did intend the amendment to be punitive when it was written and felt it needed to be to get Gillette’s attention, he immediately undid it. “They forgot to tell everybody that part,” he says.

“I still…say it’s critical that Gillette gets water, they are an economic driver in the State of Wyoming. I in no way am trying to deny them water, but I do insist that we know those wells are safe and we’re not endangering water for every other town in northeast Wyoming,” he says.

Gillette isn’t playing hardball because of the potential cost, Driskill says – in fact, he is adamant that the entire amendment can be enacted at no cost at all. The pipeline is already in place, the landowners must still pay a tap fee and city rates.

It’s not over until it’s over, says Driskill. He will continue to negotiate with involved parties to come up with a solution for the beleaguered landowners near Carlile.

“I’m representing my constituents – citizens of Crook County, and also the citizens of Campbell County [they] threw under the bus that are now going to be denied palatable drinking water because [they are] trying to hurt me,” he says.

Meanwhile, August 15-17 is the next Select Water Committee and Water Development Commission meeting, which will include a tour of the well field. On the Friday, there will be time for public comment.

“Gillette’s official stance is that Crook County turned them back and nobody wants on that line,” he says. “Anybody from Crook County can come say their piece.”