ENFORCEMENT:

Conservative group sees politics in play in EPA's Dimock retreat

An attorney for two conservative groups says he has uncovered evidence that top Obama administration officials interfered in U.S. EPA's investigation of water contamination from shale drilling in Dimock, Pa., out of fear the inquiries would hurt President Obama's re-election chances.

Seeking further proof of the interference, Christopher Horner has filed two Freedom of Information Act requests with EPA in recent days on behalf of the American Traditional Institute (ATI) and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic (FMELC).

Horner said he has received information from two whistle-blowers, career employees at EPA, showing that they were told to stop looking for contamination in the Dimock water wells.

"This is not evidence of a problem with fracking but evidence of political intervention, apparently with electoral needs in mind, only," Horner said in an ATI news release. "Such decisions, as we also point out, are subject to reversal when the politicians find they have different needs. And the public should know if that's how things are being done at EPA, and in this White House."

Asked about the allegations in ATI's release, an EPA spokeswoman said only, "We will review the FOIA request and respond accordingly."

Horner's allegations come on the heels of the revelation by the Los Angeles Times that EPA deemed Dimock's water safe despite warnings from agency staffers that several wells had been contaminated with methane and substances such as manganese and arsenic, most likely because of local natural gas production.

In Dimock, a group of residents complained that drilling caused gas to leak into their water. In a few cases, the gas blew up water wells. State officials agreed, saying Cabot Oil and Gas contaminated 18 properties. The state shut down Cabot wells in the area for more than two years, fined the company and eventually negotiated a $4.1 million settlement in which all the affected homeowners got at least two times the value of their home and kept any mineral rights.

The state also ordered Cabot to deliver water to affected residents for more than two years. In October 2011, the state said Cabot could stop.

Last year, EPA did testing and determined that the specific practice of hydraulic fracturing had not contaminated the Dimock wells with fracturing fluid, as many activists had alleged.

In August, the state allowed Cabot to resume well completion and production in the area. But the state still has not cleared Cabot to drill new wells in the area (EnergyWire, July 26, 2012).

Horner and the conservative groups make an unlikely ally for the environmentalists who have been increasingly concerned as EPA has pulled back from three high-profile drilling pollution cases in Dimock, Parker County, Texas, and Pavillion, Wyo.

Horner has peppered EPA with more than 30 FOIA requests since 2010, often seeking to show EPA officials colluding with environmental groups or operating in a less-than-transparent function (E&ENews PM, July 15).

In the ATI release, Horner makes clear that his concern is not that EPA is failing to protect the environment but that the administration may have simply delayed its "campaign against the current boom in hydraulic fracturing" until after the election.

But one of Horner's two whistle-blowers offers very different reasons for coming forward, citing a duty to expose "patently unethical and possibility illegal acts conducted by EPA management."

"I have for over a year now worked within the system to try and make right the injustice and apparent unethical acts I witnessed. (I have not been alone in this effort,)" the unnamed person said in the release. "I took an oath when I became a federal employee that I assume very solemnly."

ATI described one of the sources as "close to a field team (working near Dimock, Pennsylvania)." The other source, ATI said, provided screen shots from the alias "Richard Windsor" alias email account, created for former Administrator Lisa Jackson, indicating that Jackson was part of an internal email group dubbed "HQ-Dimock." Many members of the email group, it said, were lawyers and members of Lisa Jackson's inner political circle.

"These two EPA employees appear credible; one we have established is quite reliable, and the other was referred to us by a highly regarded and well-known academic scientist," Horner said.

One FOIA request seeks emails, text messages and instant messages sent to and from Richard Fetzer, Richard Rupert and Ann DiDonato, all EPA employees in the Philadelphia regional office, which handled the Dimock case.

The second seeks emails sent as part of the "HQ-Dimock" discussion group. Both requests cover the seven-month period from Dec. 1, 2011, through June 30, 2012.

Environmental groups say they also would like to know more about the behind-the-scenes decisionmaking on Dimock and the other two cases. But they are suspicious that conservative groups have taken up the charge.

"It appears to be at attempt to bully EPA out of these cases," said Kate Sinding, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Community Fracking Defense Project. "If their request results in getting more information about the decisionmaking, that's good information for everyone. But I question their motivation."

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