By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI
The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 4:06 PM
HOUSTON -- Texas regulators determined Tuesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was wrong when it concluded a gas driller had contaminated domestic water wells in North Texas.
The unanimous decision by the Railroad Commission of Texas marked the latest battle between state agencies and the EPA in a long, drawn out war that has evolved from disputes over environmental issues into a fierce debate about states' rights. The Railroad Commission blasted the EPA, accusing it of shoddy testing methods and jumping to conclusions.
"I see this as sort of a cavalier attempt by the federal government to reach its arms into our state's jurisdictions," said Commissioner Michael Williams, who is resigning his post on April 2 to run for U.S. Senate as a Republican.
The government, he told the Associated Press, wants to "adversely affect the domestic energy industry."
The commission's decision means Range Resources can continue its natural gas operations in Parker County, just west of Dallas, and is not obligated by the state to provide the impacted families with clean water.
Range Resources' natural gas operations "have not contaminated and will not contaminate" the water wells in question, Railroad Commission chairwoman Elizabeth Jones said after the 3-0 vote.
But in December, the EPA issued an emergency order demanding Range Resources of Fort Worth place monitors in two homes and provide two families with water, accusing the company of contaminating domestic water wells. A month later, when Range Resources failed to comply, the EPA asked the federal district court in Dallas to intervene. They are now awaiting a court date.
The EPA believes Range contributed to the contamination of the wells with benzene, methane and other toxic gases.
"The decision by the Texas Railroad Commission is not supported by EPA's independent, scientific investigation, which concluded that Range Resources Corporation and Range Production Company have contributed to the contamination of homeowners' drinking water wells," the EPA said in a statement issued shortly after the commission's decision.
"EPA stands by the order issued to Range Resources and seeks to secure Range's full compliance," it added.
Range denies its drilling operations in the Barnett Shale formation contaminated domestic water wells. Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman, said Range welcomes the opportunity and "very much look forward" to meeting the EPA in court.
Range has been using new technologies - horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing - to extract once out-of-reach natural gas reserves from impenetrable rock formations a mile underground. The companies pump high volumes of water and chemicals at great pressure into the wellbore to permeate the rock, and there have been complaint in some places - especially Pennsylvania - that underground aquifers have become contaminated in the process. This is the first case in Texas.
Range Resources and the Railroad Commission believe the water wells became contaminated by the Strawn formation, a shallow rock packed with natural gas that comingles with the aquifer that feeds the water wells in question. They argue Range's gas production from the Barnett Shale are a mile underground and thousands of feet of thick, impermeable rock separate the shale and the water wells.
"There's overwhelming evidence to suggest that this is an act of Mother Nature," Pitzarella said, adding that "we're happy for those folks that hopefully that puts some of their concerns at rest."
Steven Lipsky, however, who lives in one of the impacted homes in Weatherford with his wife and three young children, is not at all pleased.
"That's ridiculous," Lipsky said of the commission's decision. "It's a corrupt system. It's kind of sad."
The saga began for Lipsky in late 2009, when his water started showing signs of gas contamination - four years after the water well was drilled, but just a month after Range Resources shattered the rock a mile underground to extract gas. By early 2010, the water was so packed with gas the well was unable to pump any out, and the scared family moved out for a few months.
They returned, however, and began shipping in water at a cost of at least $550 a month, Lipsky said. After the EPA's order, Range Resources began paying for the water and also put gas monitors in the home, he added. Now, however, the company has informed the family the monitors will be removed and the family will have to pay for its water.
"You can't drink this water," Lipsky said, noting he can light the water on fire - and the EPA has posted videos of the phenomenon. "There's not a little bit of gas coming out of that. It's an extreme amount."
Lipsky agrees with the Railroad Commission and Range that in 2005, a short time after his own water well was drilled, a neighbor had an entire well contaminated by gas. In that case, however, it was clear they had hit a gas pocket and the water well driller immediately contacted authorities. At that time, no one else had an issue with gas, and Lipsky said the scientists who did the testing at his home said an established water well could only become contaminated by nearby gas drilling.
Now, he is hoping the federal court and the EPA resolve the issue.
"Hopefully, someone will try to do the right thing out there because the government in Texas, the Railroad Commission, they weren't there for any help from day one," Lipsky said.