NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter blasted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday at a congressional hearing, specifically, how the agency handled complaints by Parker County residents that their water wells were contaminated with methane.
"The EPA, falsely claiming the [Railroad] Commission had done nothing, decided to step in and conduct their own investigation, or what I would term a 'witch hunt,'" Porter told members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee chaired by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio).
Following a series of stories on News 8, Parker County has become a key player in the national debate over natural gas drilling and its effects on groundwater.
In 2010, responding to a complaint by homeowner Steve Lipsky that his well water was contaminated, the EPA found explosive levels of methane contamination, saying a nearby gas drilling operation was likely to blame.
Two years later, the EPA dropped the matter.
In December, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General determined the agency was justified in issuing an emergency order against the gas well operator, Range Resources.
But the EPA now says no threat exists in Parker County — a position that has residents and activists across the country outraged.
Lipsky was the first to speak out when in 2009 his water well began to fill with explosive levels of methane gas.
Neighbor Shelly Purdue learned she could light her water well on fire, too.
Just up the road, Elizabeth Falconer and her husband started getting sick at the same time they noticed their water going bad.
"By October, November of '09, I was having severe dizzy spells and migraine-type headaches," Falconer said.
All of this was happening within months of a natural gas well being drilled close to their homes.
The EPA conducted tests and discovered explosive levels of methane and dangerous levels of benzene in their drinking water.
EPA scientists linked the contamination with the drilling operation. In 2010, the agency issued an emergency order, directing the operator — Range Resources — to conduct tests and fix the problem.
In 2011, the Railroad Commission concluded Range Resources was not causing or contributing to contamination of any Parker County water wells. The EPA continued its investigation.
Range disagreed with the EPA findings, but agreed to conduct additional tests. Those new tests, they say, show only low levels of methane in the water.
Range says any methane is naturally-occurring, and may be the result of water wells drilled too deep into a gas formation.
"This is a well-documented, naturally-occurring issue in Parker County that long pre-dates Range's activity," Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said in a statement this week to News 8. Range Resources has responded to this story, which you can read here.
"A state investigation clearly proved that Range's activities did not cause or contribute to the issue, and federal investigators acknowledged under oath that there was no evidence directly linking Range to their order, which was eventually completely withdrawn. Several water wells in the area are drilled directly into a methane-producing zone which sits beneath the water table, serving as a pathway," Pitzarella added.
But according to residents, independent test results and other scientists, the problem is getting worse.
Carroll Dawson, who lives a few blocks away, said his water was fine until 2012, when methane began polluting his well.
Tests conducted by Range Resources showed only small levels of methane in his water, 0.26 parts per million.
Independent tests conducted by Duke University last year show methane levels in Dawson's well water of 100 times that amount.
"Instead of being 0.26, it was 26.8, and they said that we really had a problem," Dawson said. "They also did a test for methane in the air inside the home, and they came back and told us it tested extremely high."
The same Duke tests found methane levels in Lipsky's and Purdue's well water of 41 and 54 parts per million. Anything above 10 parts per million in water is considered unacceptable.
However, tests conducted by Range Resources measured methane levels of only 2.3 and 2.8 parts per million.
Follow-up tests conducted by Range last year again found no cause for alarm.
But those test results are challenged in a report issued by the EPA's Office of Inspector General in late December.
“The EPA did not review or approve Range Resources’ sampling protocol, nor did it review or approve the data collection and analytical methods during the course of the study,” the OIG report states.
The OIG report also states the EPA had sufficient information in 2010 to conclude that the Range gas well "was the most likely contributor to the contamination of the aquifer."
Despite that report, EPA officials in Washington have issued a response to the OIG report saying it has now re-analyzed the data and found "there is not widespread groundwater contamination of concern ... in Parker County." The EPA has found, according to the report, that "immediate human health risks ... have been addressed."
"We are very troubled by this," said Kate Sinding with the National Resources Defense Council in New York. In an interview Wednesday, she said this is the third time in recent months that the EPA has backed off on water well contamination cases. The other two are in Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania.
"It seems that for one reason or another, EPA headquarters has either received orders or given orders to pull out of these investigations," Sinding said. "It just doesn't square with their general mandate to protect public health and the environment."
- READ: Letter from EPA to NRDC
Meanwhile, Dawson said he has spent $15,000 on a water filtration system trying to get rid of a methane problem he feels is getting worse.
He and his neighbors want the EPA to reopen the case and finally hold the driller accountable.
"I feel like Range crawled under our homes and vandalized our water, and I'm wanting them to correct the problem and to pay damages," Dawson said.
The EPA is reportedly working with the state oil and gas regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission to follow up on the continued complaints from Parker County.
A formal report is expected later this month.
The Texas Railroad Commission, however, is already on record supporting the industry claim that the methane in the Parker County water wells is naturally-occurring.
"Thanks to the oil and gas industry's best practices and strict regulation and enforcement by the Railroad Commission, there has never been a confirmed case of groundwater contamination due to hydraulic fracturing in Texas," Porter said in his prepared statement to the House Science Committee Wednesday.
- Read the EPA's letter this month to the Natural Resources Defense Council updating its groundwater investigations in Texas, Pennsylvania and Wyoming