NATURAL GAS:

Armendariz sticks by Range water pollution charge

LUBBOCK, Texas -- The former U.S. EPA official who accused Range Resources Corp. of contaminating drinking water near Fort Worth said Saturday he still believes the company's gas drilling operation fouled the well, even though the federal government dropped the case.

But Al Armendariz, the regional administrator who resigned a month after the case was dropped, said he made the decision to withdraw the case because it was bogged down in the courts.

"The best available data that I was presented by my staff indicated that that driller's natural gas was ending up in a private drinking water well," Armendariz said. "I've not seen, and when I withdrew our enforcement action I didn't see, anything to the contrary."

Answering questions in an appearance at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, he continued, "But we do live in a very litigious society. It had been in court for more than a year going on two.

"I felt a better course of action would be to talk to Range about a potential settlement where we would withdraw our enforcement action and they would commit to doing additional monitoring in Parker County," he said.

Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said Armendariz was wrong and that Range's drilling did not contaminate the well. He said the case was dropped when officials in Washington, D.C., looked at the case and found it unsupportable.

"Much like everything else Dr. Armendariz has said regarding this case, his remarks fly in the face of facts, science and internal documents from Region 6," Pitzarella said. "We're glad that when EPA Headquarters eventually examined this matter, they allowed facts and science to lead to their withdrawal of the order. Dr. Armendariz has proved one thing, however, and that is he's a far better activist than he was regulator."

Armendariz brought the high-profile case in December 2010, as the Dallas-based director for Region 6, which includes Texas and surrounding states. He now works for the Sierra Club on its anti-coal campaign.

He charged that Range had allowed gas from its wells to leak natural gas into two homes in Parker County in the Fort Worth suburbs. He ordered the Houston-based company to fix the problem and supply water to the families.

His emergency order also accused the state oil and gas officials at the Texas Railroad Commission of failing to protect their residents (Greenwire, Dec. 8, 2010).

Range denied the accusations, and the Texas Railroad Commission backed the company.

The case went to federal court, where the agency was represented by Justice Department lawyers. An element of the case went to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans.

EPA and the Justice Department dropped the case in March, saying they wanted to shift away from litigation to a "joint effort" involving more testing (E&ENews PM, March 30). As part of the settlement, Range agreed to do much of the testing it would have been required to do under the emergency order.

Nevertheless, the industry and its supporters claimed full victory over Armendariz and EPA. They also cast it as a victory for state regulation over federal intrusion (EnergyWire, April 2).

Weeks later, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) circulated a two-year-old video of remarks Armendariz had made at a town hall meeting. In it, Armendariz compared his strategy of making examples of violators to Roman conquerors' strategy to "crucify" random villagers (E&ENews PM, April 25).

The reversal on Range gave additional significance to the video. Critics of Armendariz cited it as confirmation that he had gone after Range with flawed evidence.

Armendariz apologized for the comments and resigned within a week (Greenwire, April 30).

Armendariz has not spoken widely about the case. The agency's comments about the dismissal came from EPA spokespersons. He remained silent about the dismissal of the case. He skipped a congressional hearing where House Republicans deemed the Range charges "false."

He did tell The Texas Tribune in an interview published in August, "It really did happen the way it was described by the agency.

"The agency felt that it would be better to move forward on that matter rather than continuing to litigate it in federal court. And so we withdrew the order and Range agreed to do some more sampling and to send that data to the agency," he said in the question-and-answer-style interview.

His comments Saturday indicated more strongly than previously that he had made the decision, rather than attorneys at the Justice Department or officials in the Obama White House, where natural gas drilling is popular.

"It was mine," he said of the decision.

He noted that he has not seen any of the results of the testing that Range agreed to do under the settlement. EPA has not released any of the data Range has collected and provided under the settlement.

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