EPA

Feds followed procedures in Range case, though questions remain -- IG

U.S. EPA's internal watchdog said the agency adhered to proper procedures in its investigation into whether Range Resources Corp. contaminated groundwater in a community west of Fort Worth, Texas, and acted within its discretion when it dropped the case in 2012.

But the agency's inspector general reported that "questions still remain" about the contamination three years after the case was first brought.

"Although EPA officials believe that current residents are not presently at risk, the overall risk faced by current and future area residents has not been determined," the IG wrote in the report released today.

EPA officials said they agreed with the findings but also noted they could bring another enforcement action in the case.

"Importantly, EPA retains authority to take action in the future should circumstances change and the [Texas] Railroad Commission fails to act as the lead state agency charged with overseeing oil-and-gas-related activities in Texas," EPA officials said in a response to the report.

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The findings of the EPA's inspector general contradict the assertions of Range officials, who say EPA leaders withdrew the case because it was premised on faulty science and bias against the oil and gas industry. And the report chips away at suspicions voiced by environmentalists that EPA's retreat was a capitulation to industry by the Obama administration.

By charting a middle path, it will likely satisfy neither side in the ongoing debate over the safety of the country's shale drilling boom.

"The Obama administration appears to be more concerned about protecting corporate interests, not the public interest," Steve Lipsky, one of the homeowners who believes Range contaminated his drinking water, said in a release issued by the environmental group Earthworks. "President Obama promised that hydraulic fracturing would occur safely. With this IG report, it now seems clear that he is determined to squash any evidence to the contrary."

The Range case is one of three EPA enforcement cases that represented an aggressive entrance into shale gas oversight, followed by a slow, steady retreat. EPA officials announced investigations into reports of water contamination in Pavillion, Wyo., and Dimock, Pa., but then cut the inquiries short.

In its response to the IG report, EPA said it agreed with the IG's conclusions.

"EPA will continue to share any additional sampling data and relevant information provided by Range and other parties with the Texas Railroad Commission," an EPA spokeswoman said in an emailed comment.

Range Resources, based in Fort Worth, drilled two wells in 2009 on ranchland behind a ramshackle neighborhood of mobile homes and small houses in Parker County, Texas, west of Fort Worth. The horizontal parts of the well bores extended under that neighborhood and under an affluent large-lot subdivision nearby.

Two homeowners in that subdivision, Silverado on the Brazos, complained that their water suddenly turned cloudy and had enough methane that it could catch on fire.

Frustrated when state officials wouldn't take action in the case, EPA hit Range with an enforcement action in December 2010 accusing it of contaminating the water (EnergyWire, Nov. 25). Range mounted a vigorous defense, and the case quickly came to be viewed as a test of the safety of shale drilling and the effectiveness of federal regulation.

EPA's enforcement action was a slap not only at Range but also the state agency that oversees oil and gas drilling, the oddly named Texas Railroad Commission. It charged that the agency, headed by three elected officials, hadn't done enough to help its constituents.

Stung, the commissioners lambasted EPA for intruding in state affairs. The commissioners scheduled a hearing and exonerated Range in short order.

In March 2012, with the case dragging through the courts, EPA bailed out on the case with little explanation. In the wake of the dismissal, controversial comments that EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz had made two years before resurfaced, and he resigned.

EPA officials explained the withdrawal to IG investigators by saying the case became more complicated than they'd expected.

"Although they believed they were on firm ground there was always a risk that the judge could rule against the EPA. If that happened, it would risk establishing case law that could weaken the EPA's ability to enforce [Safe Drinking Water Act] emergency orders in the future," the report said.

Range officials stress that the withdrawal was not a negotiated settlement, where each side gives a little. Instead, they have maintained that EPA higher-ups in Washington beat a full retreat when they realized their people on the ground in Dallas had brought the case based on flawed science.

EPA has never confirmed that, and hundreds of pages of internal emails released under the Freedom of Information Act reflect no doubts about the evidence among the officials who arranged the dismissal of the case.

What EPA did say when it dropped the case was that Range would test the water wells in the neighborhood. But when one of the wells showed dangerously high levels of methane, EPA waited four months and then sent the results to state officials (EnergyWire, Nov. 6).

In the report, EPA officials told IG investigators that the results showed that only one of dozens of tests showed problematic levels of methane and that that well dropped below threshold levels in the next test three months later.

Other tests have shown much higher levels than Range's contractors reported. EPA officials have asked Range for more supporting data for their testing.

When the charges were dropped, the agency also announced that Range had agreed to provide access to its well sites for the agency's multiyear study of hydraulic fracturing, the IG report said. That has not happened.

After EPA bailed out, Lipsky sued Range, and Range sued back. A local judge threw out Lipsky's case on procedural grounds. But he came down on Range's side in ruling that Lipsky was part of a "conspiracy to defame" the company because he'd circulated a video "calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning." Lipsky has shown, though, that the water contains enough methane that it can be lit on fire.

Methane occurs naturally in drinking water wells in some areas of the country and is not toxic in water. But if it collects, it can explode inside a house or asphyxiate people at high concentrations. And sometimes more harmful toxins, such as benzene, come with it.

Methane migration from well bores into aquifers is an established, if not common, problem when drilling oil and gas wells. Failure to properly seal wells with cement can allow gas from different formations to drift into drinking water aquifers.

In the wake of the dismissal, Sens. James Inhofe (Okla.) and John Cornyn (Texas) and several other Republican senators requested that EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins investigate why the case was brought.

Environmental groups later asked the IG to investigate why the case was dropped.

Also, Lipsky and some other neighbors have filed new complaints with the Railroad Commission. The commission has done additional testing but has not taken further action.

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