Range Resources denies EPA allegation that it contaminated water wells

Fort Worth-based Range Resources Corp., blamed by the Environmental Protection Agency for methane contamination of two water wells in southwest Parker County, strongly disputed those contentions Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state oil and gas industry, announced late Wednesday afternoon that it has scheduled a Jan. 10 hearing on the issue.

Based on its own investigation, Range, an oil and gas exploration and production company, said its activities have had no impact on the water aquifer in Parker County or the subject water wells.

"The investigation has revealed that methane in the water aquifer existed long before our activity and likely is naturally occurring migration from several shallow zones immediately below the water aquifer," the company said. Two producing Range natural gas wells in the area "are completed in the Barnett Shale formation, which is over a mile below the water zone."

Methane is the primary component of natural gas.

The EPA said Tuesday that two Parker County homes have water contaminated by natural gas drilling activities and face the risk of fire and explosion. The agency issued an emergency order against Range, telling it to provide the homes with safe drinking water and take other measures to protect the nine residents after the commission, which regulates gas drilling, declined to take immediate action.

EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz said the agency is "very concerned" that gas could migrate into the homes through water lines, leading to a fire or explosion. Officials declined to identify the homeowners.

Range said it "has been working with the Texas Railroad Commission staff, engineers and field inspectors for several months and has conducted extensive testing of both Range-operated gas wells and the water wells of concern. We've provided those findings to the landowner, the Railroad Commission and the EPA."

Mike Middlebrook, Range vice president of operations, said: "While the research indicates our activity did not cause any methane in any water well, we're committed to doing the right thing and to continue to work with regulators to determine the cause and assist landowners. This is our home, too, and no one wants to make sure this is done right more than we do."

The commission said Range has agreed to conduct further gas-well testing and "perform soil gas surveys that may lead to additional environmental investigation activities."

Contamination area

Steven Lipsky, the homeowner who complained to the commission, lives in a high-end subdivision about 15 miles southwest of Weatherford, not far from the Hood County line. The subdivision includes amenities such as a large horse arena in the middle of the development and boat slips leading to the Brazos River.

Range has two nearby producing Barnett natural gas wells, the Butler Unit No. 1-H and Teal Unit No. 1 H, on the same pad site a short distance inside Hood County. The site is "more than 2,200 feet"-- or slightly more than two-fifths of a mile --"from the two affected homes," the commission said.

Lipsky declined to comment and referred all questions to his attorney, David Ritter of Fort Worth, who also declined to comment.

The EPA's emergency administrative order showed that Lipsky's water well was drilled in April 2005 and that the first sign of problems was in December 2009, four months after the Range gas wells began producing gas.

Political rhetoric continued to surround the case Wednesday.

Commissioner Michael Williams, who criticized the EPA Tuesday night, vowed Wednesday that the federal agency would not be allowed to take over the state agency's responsibility for regulating the industry.

"EPA pump your brakes, slow your roll!!," Williams tweeted.

The commission said Tuesday in response to the EPA that it has "made no conclusions about possible sources of natural gas and hydrocarbons found in a water well. Additionally, no pathways from a deep hydrocarbon source to the water well have been identified."

Shooting flames

After the commission's inspection Aug. 6, Lipsky contacted Parker County Judge Mark Riley, who said the problems quickly became apparent.

"I went out to his home and saw it firsthand, putting a lighter to the end of the water hose and flames coming out, a strong odor in the drinking water and the homeowner having his sliding glass door open to prevent a buildup of fumes inside," Riley said. "I'm certainly not a scientist, but anybody with common sense would know an issue existed."

Riley said he has had no contact with the second homeowner whose property was included in the emergency order after the EPA was called in.

Riley does not know the identity of the second homeowner.

'Explosivity meters'

The EPA filed an imminent and substantial endangerment order under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

In that order, Range has 24 hours to indicate in writing whether it will comply with the order and must install EPA-approved "explosivity meters" in the homes within 48 hours. Within five days, Range must list and identify all private water wells within 3,000 feet of the drilling site, including the Lake Country Acres subdivision public water supply wells, and test those water wells for contamination.

Within 14 days, the company must submit a plan to conduct soil gas surveys and indoor air concentration analyses of the two contaminated water wells that serve the two homes.

In the next two months, the order says, Range must identify any "gas flow pathways to the Trinity Aquifer," eliminate those flows if possible and conduct remediation if the aquifer has been harmed.

Jack Z. Smith, 817-390-7724

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

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