How One Man's Flaming Water Fired Up a Battle Between Texas and the EPA

Steve Lipsky's epic battle and what it means for the future of fracking.

How One Man's Flaming Water Fired Up a Battle Between Texas and the EPA
Monica Fuentes

Steve Lipsky gripped a garden hose and held it at arm's length, staring as a guttering tongue of fire poured from its end and grew another foot before his eyes.

"Look at that," he said in awe as the flame, liquid and sinuous, licked the rural darkness outside his home in Parker County. "It's getting bigger. Holy cow! Look at that. We're up to five feet. That's not even, what, 25 minutes? We could do this a lot bigger."

As the fire blazed and was recorded on a video camera during the summer of 2010, water poured from a nearby length of pipe atop the well that once supplied drinking water to his family's home. Since at least Christmas the year before, Lipsky would testify later, his submersible pump had coughed, sputtered and struggled to fill a 5,000-gallon holding tank with water. He hired a well-service tech to replace the pump, but found a very different problem: natural gas, and lots of it.

Alisa Rich of Wolf Eagle Environmental backed Steve Lipsky's claim that gas drilling had contaminated his drinking water.
Jay Barker
Alisa Rich of Wolf Eagle Environmental backed Steve Lipsky's claim that gas drilling had contaminated his drinking water.
Shawn Scott, fire marshal in Parker County, witnessed Lipsky's flaming water in 2010.
Jay Barker
Shawn Scott, fire marshal in Parker County, witnessed Lipsky's flaming water in 2010.

For months Lipsky had felt as though something was wrong with him. He was often fatigued and nauseated. In panicked moments, he feared he was dying of cancer. Perhaps this would explain it all — the pump, the tap water that foamed, the flaming hose.

Parker County Fire Marshal Shawn Scott was the first authority to see the fire trick. After blowing off Lipsky as an imaginative crank, in July 2010 Scott finally pulled up to Lipsky's palatial, 15,000-square-foot manse, at the end of a live oak-lined inlet off the Brazos River, just upriver from Lake Granbury.

"Mr. Lipsky turned on the valve at the top of the wellhead and said, 'Watch this,'" Scott recalls. Water gushed from the wellhead. A few flicks of a lighter, and water and flame poured forth together.

Scott, a good-natured but level-headed hulk, ordered him to snuff it out immediately. Lipsky turned, and the growing flame swept the wellhead, accidentally igniting a second fire. "That got us both a little stirred up there because now we got an uncontrolled flame coming from the top of the water well," Scott says. "That was the first time I'd ever seen that."

Scott radioed his assistant fire marshal and told him to bring his tools from downtown Weatherford, a 30-minute drive down two-lane roads. He needed to see just how much gas was coming from Lipsky's well.

"We got within 20 feet of that well and the hydrocarbon detector was going bonkers, full indication," Scott says. "I couldn't get any closer because you risk burning up the sensors. This is in open air. It's not like we were in a house."

Instead, Scott used a less sensitive monitor to gauge gas concentrations. "Anything above 5 percent, we start getting nervous. It went to 12 or 14 percent in nothing flat, which is definitely within the explosive range."

There was little Scott could do. Lipsky had a theory for the source of his gas, and the culprit was beyond Scott's reach. Lipsky had checked the Texas Railroad Commission's website and learned that two natural gas wells, drilled horizontally, ran practically beneath his home. "We really can't touch those guys at all," Scott says.

So, Lipsky contracted with a consultant out of Flower Mound. Alisa Rich of Wolf Eagle Environmental considered herself a watchdog of the gas production industry. She's known to cruise the backroads of Denton and Tarrant counties with a camcorder in hand, watching for oilfield spills and leaks, often proclaiming that "the wolf is on the prowl." Lipsky hired her to test his water alongside an investigator from the Railroad Commission, a powerful regulatory body that oversees the state's oil and gas industry.

Even before she had finished sampling on August 17, 2010, Rich was worried. Lipsky's tap water effervesced like Alka-Seltzer. It made her glass sampling containers slippery, as though it had been spiked with lubricant. More than a week later, lab results bolstered her suspicions: His well had been polluted by nearby fracking operations, she believed. Rich advised Lipsky to stop using the water. His wife, Shyla, and their 18-month-old, and 6- and 7-year-old children should stay away, she told him. Gas could be building up inside the house. Lipsky moved into the guest house and stopped using the water. His wife and children extended their routine summer stay with her parents in Graham.

Meanwhile, the results of water quality tests performed by the Railroad Commission came in. They found levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, above the threshold limit for drinking water. Yet the agency did not act, nor did it have an answer yet for the fire Lipsky could ignite. But he and Rich believed they did: It could be no coincidence, they thought, that the two gas wells beneath his home had been fracked just months before Lipsky first noticed his failing pump. Dissatisfied with the commission's pace, Rich reached out to a contact with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With a single phone call, another kind of blaze was set.

From the moment the documentary Gasland injected fracking into the public consciousness, the image of flaming tap water was its grim totem. YouTube is populated with videos of people near gas drilling sites in New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Texas holding cigarette lighters to drinking water giving off ghostly flares — an inchoate indictment of drilling more anecdotal than scientific. But they've gained currency among aggrieved landowners and environmentalists.

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55 comments
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pimping.games

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Lonestar Ranch

Like most pro-drillers at any cost, you miss the point and like these gas companies' PR flacks, are attempting to change the direction of the conversation. Natural gas development is not sustainable, but the environmental impacts are permanent. Secondly, you may have been there 'first', and I fully support your right to do with what you want with and on your land, but you have no right to impact mine. You want to be surrounded by leaking wells, that's perfectly fine with me. Just make sure you understand that you need to keep all your chemicals-liquid and vapor contained to YOUR property and those wells can only impact YOUR water supply. Since that's neither possible or feasible, you may want to weigh your $37 royalty check versus the lawsuit against you.

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Joe Tex

Gas wells mobilize methane into groundwater -

Horizontal wells 4 x more likely to do so than vertical wells

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Max from the Sandspit
Max from the Sandspit

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pak152
pak152

"EPA staff acknowledge HF, RRC not to blame for Parker Co. wells"http://www.energyindepth.org/i...

"Just one problem: The isotopic analysis the agency used as the basis for that order doesn’t include a word about nitrogen. Believe it or not, those tests were never run. This morning’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram has the details:"http://www.energyindepth.org/e...

http://www.energyindepth.org/e...

"A judge has concluded that a Parker County resident, owner of a methane-contaminated water well, created a "deceptive video" that was "calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning."

Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/2..."

"The Environmental Protection Agency has dropped its claim that an energy company contaminated drinking water in Texas, the third time in recent months that the agency has backtracked on high-profile local allegations linking natural-gas drilling and water pollution."http://online.wsj.com/article/...

"it reignites the conversation about what’s become a troubling trend for EPA: Every time EPA intervenes in a high-profile case – generating scads of maligning headlines about shale and hydraulic fracturing in the process – the agency ends up getting it wrong."http://www.energyindepth.org/e...

Quartking
Quartking

fracking is nasty business but it pays... the almighty dollar makes the world go `round.

WCGasette
WCGasette

Mr. Hargrove, it may be helpful to clarify these statements:

"Mr. Lipsky turned on the valve at the top of the wellhead and said, 'Watch this,'" Scott recalls. Water gushed from the wellhead. A few flicks of a lighter, and water and flame poured forth together.

These statements are, of course, referring to the "water" wellhead not a gas "wellhead," but that can be confusing at first glance and since that word, "wellhead," does not appear in your article prior to this paragraph. Thank you.

Mike
Mike

Lies, lies and more lies by the enviro Nazis. As we all know now Big Al and Sauron get up in the morning so they can crucify anyone working in the oil and gas industry, just like the Romans did right Albert? Next thing you know these two slimballs will want to feed anyone working in the industry to the lions just like the Romans did to the Christians, right Albert and Sauron.? Of course none of this stopped Sauron from leasing her minerals in Wise County for oil and gas exploration to the evil industry. If anyone reading this article has a mental clue watch the documentary SpOiled. Most of the envrio Nazis have no idea that the so-called renewables only comprise half of 1% of the total energy mix of this country. The Chinses are buying oil and gas assets all over the planet. They are laughing at us. As Lenin said people like Big Al and Sauron are very useful idiots to the communists and Chinese.

Smith
Smith

Just like so many other anti fracking articles, there is no proven facts about actual fracking dangers. The best argument you got is well casings that don't go deep enough, which could occur on any type of drilling and should be investigated. But headlines that leave out FRACKING don't get read do they?

Angrywhitey
Angrywhitey

My grandmother had gas in her water well outside of Chicago! Who can we sue since there is no oil & gas production within 100 miles of her home?

Andy Mechling
Andy Mechling

Great reporting. I agree with the commenter below. I hope you will now turn to focus on the air emissions.

In my view:Air emissions are clearly the biggest problem.Sulfur compounds are clearly the biggest part of that program.There is still no serious monitoring for carbon disulfide, carbonyl sulfide, or hydrogen sulfide..

Please check me on these three facts:

The Fort Worth Natural Gas Air Quality Study, released by Eastern Research Group last summer, at a cost of over 1$M, is probably the most comprehensive and systematic study of ambient air pollution ever performed in an urban environment. - The ERG team works closely with EPA. This is one of the top analytical labs in the world. Easy to check this.

The results from the FWNGAQS study indicate, that out of the 138 Chemicals sampled, carbon disulfide was the only chemical clearly associated with elevated levels near the NG activities. Overwhelmingly associated. Somehow, discussion of this key result gets left out of the official 320 page report released to the public. Please check this fact.

Carbon disulfide has long been the solvent of choice for the purposes of Enhanced Oil Recovery from oil and gas wells - even before they started calling it that. Check this. Its all right there in the patents and publicly disclosed. Check Joseph Allen's patents from Texaco. Union Oil and solid dithiocarbamates, Pending 2012 patents by Shell and etc. None of these guys are shy about the reasoning behind their long-standing preference for injecting and utilizing CS2 downhole.

Shell Oil Company seems to have some big big plans for widespread, on-site production of CS2. Or maybe these are all just meaningless patents. I sure don't know. You might check.

Thomas_Avit
Thomas_Avit

Obviously a personal tragedy, but one at least found out so it can be dealt with. If the horizontal drilling and hydrofracking causes problems this dramatic, think what might be happening that is not being found out - - yet?

1) What if Steve Lipsky was a smoker and went out to water his lawn and he ignited a flame that literally caught him on fire?

2) What if Steve Lipsky was a smoker, his house filled up with natural gas (as he was warned could happen), and he came home from a vacation week and entered his home with his family while smoking? No one in his immediate family would probably be around to complain.

3) Suppose the natural gas leak was occurring in some unidentified place in nature and someone walked by smoking or had some other form of ignition with them?

4) Suppose many natural gas leaks were occurring unidentified places in nature and no one ever noticed for years on end. As natural gas is a greenhouse gas, what would the effect of billions of CF of natural gas escaping have on our environment? I suppose that some government agency could always blame the cows - - at least in Texas.

Talk about planting land mines in our environment!

WCGasette
WCGasette

With a comment like that, calling someone else a "kid" is hysterical. Thanks for that.

WCGasette
WCGasette

Overall, the impact of shale gas drilling on our cities and out in our rural areas is an environmental negative no matter how it's "dressed up." An operator "proving" by their own methodology that a water well was contaminated by another gas formation and not from hydrofracking must provide a momentary sigh of relief for the oil and gas industry. Even if there were other tests performed by the EPA that "proved" something quite different.

I like to know that there's something called the Environmental "Protection" agency and that it's present in our fossil fuel lovin' state. Like a doctor who sees danger and makes a decision to prevent a more serious problem from developing...this should help us all know that this agency is working hard to make absolutely sure Texans are not in imminent danger. Thank God that they are here and erring on the side of our safety.

Dr. Armendariz is heroic for his willingness to take on this job in Texas for the past 3 years. It takes a person with a great deal of strength and courage to question any of the gas operators about their operations ~ especially when there are so many issues that are developing every day with this *new* technology for bleeding the earth of every last drop of fossil fuel.

One thing we also know...based on all those industry links you provided...the industry reacts very strongly when anyone questions what they are doing. They have a much bigger staff than we do. And they are paid. They don't even like our cities tightening up on our Gas Drilling Ordinances. Have you ever been in one of those meetings? The citizens and the city councils can be overwhelmed by these industry reps and the lessors they encourage to speak up for something they may know very little about. So, there's a lot more to all of this than water contamination of a private water well. Tomorrow is another day in gasland.

Wes Scott
Wes Scott

Fracking does not pay. It costs. It is all a Ponzi scheme to sell gas companies to sucker investors. The current market rate is about 20% of the breakeven cost. Even a guy like pak152 SHOULD be able to figure that out except for the fact that he is very mathematically and integrity challenged.

pak152
pak152

in what way is it nasty?

pak152
pak152

pls dont' confuse Brantley with facts it goes against the anti-fracking meme

Marc
Marc

Mikey, it appears that you need some lessons in civics and government. Just so you will know, Nazis are far right wind on the political philosophy scale, and commies are on the far left - they have nothing in common. Therefore, I fail to see how "enviro Nazis" could ever be useful to the commies and China, which are diametrically opposed to Nazi philosophy.

In your zeal to toss around insults and ad hom attacks you suffered a complete and total failure of logic and political fact. I apologize for pissing in your cereal, but somebody needed to set you straight before you make an even bigger fool out of yourself.

"Spoiled" is industry propaganda put out by people who harbor a strictly pro-industry agenda, though they claim not to actually be from industry, kinda like people like you, pak152 and a couple of others who do not really care for the truth when it gets in the way of their dogma. One or more of you guys is actually Ed Ireland of the Barnett Shale Education Association (or whatever the hell the name of his Big Oil Big Lie machine is.)

It must really gall you guys that, despite all your bravado, lies and disinformation, and through no fault of those opposed to frac'ing, the natural gas industry is collapsing and Wall Street is starting to run away. Gas is now selling for somewhere near a buck 80 for a thousand cubic feet and it needs more than four times that amount just to break even on drilling, frac'ing and production costs. Greed and believing your own bullshit has driven the price of gas far below profitability, and lies about long-term royalty revenues are being laid bare. The amount of recoverable reserves has been substantially reduced twice in 5 or less months by the US EIA, proving again that industry lied to investors about the volume of reserves they have on tap.

Be pissed at us who oppose natural gas production all you want, but in the end your side is the loser and we are going to win just because of your greed and stupidity. You guys make our efforts so much easier. Besides, we are not really opposed to drilling and production - we are just opposed to drilling and production by unsafe and unproven methods and in densely populated urban areas using and destroying huge amounts of water in the process.

You can rest assured that we are enjoying watching the implosion of greed and stupidity. Hold your thoughts for a minute - I need to go microwave another bag of popcorn. This is going to be a long movie!

Wes Scott
Wes Scott

Mike, the NAZIs are people like you who think you have the right to do whatever you want regardless of how it harms others. But, your idea of feeding all oil and gas people to the lions would be a great idea if not for the fact it would sicken and kill the lions.

As you mention, The Chinese are buying up our natural gas rights. They already own 68% of Chesapeake. All those lies about natural gas giving us "energy independence from the Middle East" and a "100, 200 or even 300 year supply of cheap, domestic fuel" are proven to be lies by the very fact that American gas producers are selling out to foreign entities such as the Chinese Investment Corporation, and preparing to build export liquification terminals to send our gas to countries that also take our American jobs.

It takes an absolute idiot not to see the truth when it is staring you in the face. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

WCGasette
WCGasette

Wow. "Enviro Nazis"?? What an uninformed and divisive comment!!

It's totally predictable that the Oil and Gas Industry would be working overtime to try and negate the efforts of our current EPA Region 6 Administrator and others who have been working so diligently to educate our communities about all of this.

All pipelines leak. Did you know that? The "unregulated" gas gathering pipeline system covers our communities in the old Barnett Shale. A gas gathering pipeline eventually hooks up to a pad site when at least one well has been drilled and fracked. It then connects to the gathering system highway to get the shale gas out of North Texas and the Barnett Shale. It is in over abundance right now form all the drilling and fracking and a lot of it is being stored. Did you know that? But when the LNG centers are in place down South, it will be sent down there and converted to liquid natural gas and shipped overseas. That's what we've learned. All of this puts our communities in danger:

http://switchboard.nrdc.org/bl...

Sadly, many are unaware of this system since it has been done under the cover of just some regular "utility construction." Industry has controlled our towns and cities with their bonus checks and promises of help and prosperity. Communities and residential neighborhoods have been transformed forever into industrial zones. "Clean energy" continues to be the mantra. Dallas is next on the list unless more speak up and learn what's happening to our beautiful land that will never be the same.

If China is "laughing at us," as you have mentioned, then it is NOT because they share the same values we do about environmental protections. Besides that, this is not ONLY about protecting our environment (which is ultimately the issue)...this is about land grabs and lying to large groups of people about royalties they can expect to receive for the next 30 years and telling neighborhoods, "You'll never know the gas wells are here." This is a HUGE debacle on so many levels. Did you hear about Chesapeake's CEO this week? The SEC wants to know more, too.

If we allow the industry to pressure the court of public opinion to remove Dr. Al Armendariz, then we are gonna need to hang up another BIG sign on Texas sooner rather than later ~ something like this:

"Damn It. They Really Did Mess with Texas This Time. Enter at Your Own Risk."

Wes Scott
Wes Scott

Smith, you are a liar! The fact is that people refer to fracking as the whole process. You cannot frack a well that is not drilled. Casing pipe and cement are part of the whole program, so your argument is baseless and stupid, as well as illiterate. It does not matter what part of it casues the problem. What matters is the problem. You are merely arguing semantics.

WCGasette
WCGasette

Smith, we do "know" that all gas gathering pipelines leak. What do you think they leak, Smith? Clean Air?? And did you know they are "unodorized"? Meaning: No odor to detect a leak like you have in your home. And wow, the Barnett Shale is one BIG web of gas gathering pipelines for getting this shale gas from wellheads to somebody's market. Anti-fracking is just one big part of this. It's all very overwhelming, Smith.

Fletch
Fletch

There are no "proven" facts to dispute the potential dangers of fracking, either. This business takes place so deep underground that no one really knows for sure what the hell is actually going on. This parade of experts could only offer their best educated guesses, but they don't really know the truth.

Personally, I think there's much more to the dangers of fracking than any of these energy companies would ever willingly admit to.

WCGasette
WCGasette

I think she should sue you, AW. As her grandson, you should help her.

Angrywhitey
Angrywhitey

So because somebody else made a mistake 20 years ago we should not drill in Parker County? That might work in a tony little suburb like Flower Mound but wouldn't work in mostly rural Parker County!

aphex242
aphex242

Uh, because it's accomplished by pumping ridiculous amounts of toxic chemicals deep underground where it can comingle with the water table? Because it likely causes earthquakes?

Your question is possibly the most inane thing I've read on the Internet this week, and that says something.

WCGasette
WCGasette

There was no criticism of this article's facts.

Angrywhitey
Angrywhitey

That makes about as much sense as suing gas companies operating a mile below the surface for problems that water well drillers in Parker County have known about for 20 years!

Angrywhitey
Angrywhitey

Now you are worried about a company's profit margin? Who are you to decide what is an acceptable risk? And now you are deciding who is right based on the majority? How about who was here first, the rural landowners or the city dwellers? How about we decide based on who has the most land? With statements like there are NO benefits from natural gas drilling you are obviously very well informed!

Wes Scott
Wes Scott

Okay, let's look at the facts.

Chesapeake Energy, the second largest natural gas producer in the world, is led by a pathological liar, Aubrey McClendon, who was just removed from his seat as Chairman of the Board of Chesapeake, and who is currently under investigation by the SEC, IRS and Department of Justice for any number of scandalous activities that are highly illegal and unethical.

Natural gas needs a wellhead price of about $8-9 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) to breakeven on production costs, but it is currently sellling for under $1.85/mcf, so NOBODY is making any money on it. In fact, wells are being shut in, and by October America will exceed its storage capacity, at which time ALL wells will be shut in and nobody is going to get royalty payments.

The amount of damage done by drilling and fracking to our environment, whether rural or urban, is unacceptably high. There is zero benefit. We cannot afford to have our water polluted, our air contaminated and our soil poisoned for the sake of shareholder equity and corporate profits, or some some hick in the sticks can pursue his "mineral rights." The rights of the few do not outweigh the rights of the many.

It is not about "curtailing natural gas." It is about protecting our environment without which none of us can survive. Apparently, that is too deep for you to comprehend.

Angrywhitey
Angrywhitey

If "curtailing"natural gas use is your goal, then conservation is a more effective strategy. People in rural areas sometimes have held the same property for hundreds of years. What about their rights to develop their property? I'd say based on our farm policies that those people w large land holdings are a pretty powerful group, wouldn't you?

WCGasette
WCGasette

Not completely clear on your comment...but my guess is that you mean industry should have more leeway in rural communities than in a suburb? If so, then, you may be missing the point that hydrofracking of horizontal wells with chemicals, sand and fresh water has only been viable since around 2006...in the Barnett Shale. So, it's a new technology for getting the gas (and only a very small percentage of that gas) out of the shale formation at least a mile below the surface. Unconventional drilling for gas in shale is not going to be as successful at getting all the gas as in former years using conventional (vertical) drilling) at more shallow depths.

We are at the end of the era of fossil fuels. Problems with all of this out in the rural communities will affect ALL of us...if the water is contaminated at any stage in the process. Fracking chemicals are necessary...did you see what happened at the Waxahachie Magnablend Plant that blew up? Contamination of our lakes and streams is already in progress. This is a dangerous business. And the environmental impacts may not be totally known for years. We should be curtailing this and not continuing the build out.

Wes Scott
Wes Scott

pak152 never makes anything except inane statements. I think he is an industry plant, but he does not have the balls to tell us exactly what his credentials are or who he works for. His comments indicate that he works for some gas company in some capacity, probably as a disinformation agent.

Ras8320
Ras8320

After reading most of the comments regarding this article, and as a person that was ignorant of this issue of fracking, I must say that WCGasette has remained respectful, logical and clear in his/her opinions and backs up those with research and data.

Angrywhitey and Pak152 simply resort to common childish responses when they cannot clearly rebut the comments with facts. Much like when a person is rebuked for something they did wrong and the only response the person can come up with is "So?".

All in all, with their inane rhetoric, Angrywhitey and Pak152 have done the most to move me against their point of view. WCGasette has provided the insight (not to mention good manners thoughout this debate) to convince me that fracking is a dangerous process.

WCGasette
WCGasette

FYI, we are talking specifically about water wells near shale gas drilling operations. Precisely, what are you talking about? Focus, darlin'.

Angrywhitey
Angrywhitey

So you've never heard of a water well "going bad"?

WCGasette
WCGasette

Ah. You had that answer ready no matter what anyone wrote in reply, AW. Good job. But not that good.

While water wells may contain naturally occurring methane (natural gas) in some places, the Lipsky's Parker County Water Wells in question here, Water Well #1 and Water Well #2 did NOT have methane (natural gas) contamination when they were first put into production in 2005 and 2002, respectively.

See the EPA's Emergency Administrative Order and read all about the original condition of these 2 Water Wells. Scroll down to Items #12, #13, #34 and #35:

http://www.epa.gov/region6/6xa...

Also, the isotopic fingerprinting of the Well Water conducted by the EPA revealed that the methane (natural gas) in the Water Wells was the "same" as the markers for the nearby shale gas wells first drilled and fracked in 2009 ~ Butler Unit and the Teal Unit. See Items #21, #22 and #25.

It's an excellent 11 page document ~ clear and concise. Unfortunately, our Texas regulatory agency has a strong bias against federal regulation via the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Since the Trinity Aquifer (Item #6) is located under 20 Texas counties (including Parker and Hood), we should all be concerned about our fellow Texans who may very well be drinking unsafe water today.

 
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