January 16, 2013

EPA backed off emergency order after gas driller's protest

Ramit Plushnick-Masti / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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A road leads to a natural gas well near Weatherford, Texas. The EPA had evidence the gas company's drilling operation contaminated nearby families' drinking water with explosive methane, and possibly cancer-causing chemicals, but withdrew its enforcement action, leaving the families with no useable water supply.

AP

Believing the case was headed for a lengthy legal battle, the EPA asked an independent scientist named Geoffrey Thyne to analyze water samples taken from 32 water wells. In the report obtained by the AP, Thyne concluded from chemical testing that the gas in the drinking water could have originated from Range Resources' nearby drilling operation.

Meanwhile, the EPA was seeking industry leaders to participate in a national study into hydraulic fracturing. Range Resources told EPA officials in Washington that so long as the agency continued to pursue a "scientifically baseless" action against the company in Weatherford, it would not take part in the study and would not allow government scientists onto its drilling sites, said company attorney David Poole.

In March 2012, the EPA retracted its emergency order, halted the court battle and set aside Thyne's report showing that the gas in Lipsky's water was nearly identical to the gases the Plano, Texas-based company was producing.

"They said that they would look into it, which I believe is exactly what they did," Poole said. "I'm proud of them. As an American, I think that's exactly what they should have done."

The EPA offered no public explanation for its change in thinking, and Lipsky said he and his family learned about it from a reporter. The agency refused to answer questions about the decision, instead issuing a statement by email that said resolving the Range Resources matter allowed the EPA to shift its "focus in this case away from litigation and toward a joint effort on the science and safety of energy extraction."

Rob Jackson, chairman of global environmental change at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, reviewed Thyne's report and the raw data upon which it was based. He agreed the gas in Lipsky's well could have originated in a rock formation known as the Barnett shale, the same area where Range Resources was extracting gas.

Jackson said it was "premature" to withdraw the order and said the EPA "dropped the ball in dropping their investigation."

Lipsky, who is still tied up in a legal battle with Range Resources, now pays about $1,000 a month to haul water to his home. He, his wife and three children become unnerved when their methane detectors go off. Sometime soon, he said, the family will have to decide whether to stay in the large stone house or move.

"This has been total hell," Lipsky said. "It's been taking a huge toll on my family and on our life."

The confidential report relied on a type of testing known as isotopic analysis, which produces a unique chemical fingerprint that sometimes allows researchers to trace the origin of gas or oil.

Jackson, who studies hydraulic fracturing and specializes in isotopic analysis, acknowledged that more data is needed to determine for certain where the gas came from. But even if the gas came from elsewhere, Range Resources' drilling could have contributed to the problem in Lipsky's water because gas migrates, he added.

The company insists the gas in Lipsky's water is from natural migration and not drilling. Range Resources' testing indicates the gas came from a different rock formation called Strawn shale and not the deeper Barnett shale, Poole said.

In addition, he said, isotopic analysis cannot be used in this case because the chemical makeup of the gases in the two formations is indistinguishable. A Range Resources spokesman also dismissed Thyne and Jackson as anti-industry.

Range Resources has not shared its data with the EPA or the Railroad Commission. Poole said the data is proprietary and could only be seen by Houston-based Weatherford Laboratories, where it originated. It was analyzed for Range Resources by a Weatherford scientist, Mark McCaffrey, who did not respond to requests for an interview.

Gas has always been in the water in that area, Poole said. And years before Range Resources began drilling, at least one water well in the neighborhood contained so much methane, it went up in flames.

At another home with dangerously high methane levels in the water, the company insisted the gas had been there since the well was first dug many years ago. The homeowner was not aware of anything wrong until Range Resources began drilling in 2009.

Jackson said it was "unrealistic" to suggest that people could have tainted water and not notice.

"It bubbles like champagne or mineral waters," he said. "The notion that people would have wells and have this in their water and not see this is wrong."

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