A Month After EPA's Emergency Order Against Barnett Shale Gas Driller, a Federal Suit

A little more than a month ago -- and before the Environmental Protection Agency assumed control of Texas's greenhouse gas permitting -- the EPA looked to be drawing a line in the sand over water contamination from gas drilling in the Barnett Shale, with an emergency order for Fort Worth-based Range Resources to address water contamination worries at a pair of North Texas wells.

One in Parker County and one in Hood County, each of the drinking wells are each within a few hundred feet of Range drilling operations, and the EPA said the water wasn't just contaminated with benzene, methane and other chemicals (flammable too) but that it had established the pollution was "likely to be due to impacts from gas development" nearby.

But Range said they'd been studying the polluted wells and determined it wasn't their fault. Said they'd been cooperating with state regulators the entire time. Reached today, Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella says they've done chemical analysis to match the chemicals in the water to a sediment formation that runs up against the well. What's more, he says, they've gotten records of flaming wells and contamination in the area years before gas drilling began. (The Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District's general manager is inclined to agree.) "Unless our rigs are time machines, there's no way we could've been the cause," he says.

Still, the EPA gave Range 60 days to draft a plan to find and fix its gas leaks into the Trinity aquifer, and undo the pollution those leaks has already caused.

A little more than a month later, though, a suit's been filed today in Dallas federal court alleging that Range "already has failed," or has told the EPA they will fail, to comply with at least three of the orders set down last month -- among them, that plan to fix existing gas leaks and a comprehensive test of the wells within 3,000 feet of the two wellbore tracks. The EPA wants $16,500 per day for each violation of last month's order.

The Texas Railroad Commission issued a release on December 7 that included a few quotes from Commissioner Michael Williams, who will likely run to replace outgoing U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and who called the order "Washington politics of the worst kind. The EPA's act is nothing more than grandstanding in an effort to interject the federal government into Texas business," he said. "The Railroad Commission has been on top of this issue from Day 1." The commission's holding a hearing on the contaminated wells tomorrow in Austin, which'll include a look at why the feds are so interested in pursuing this action against Range.

"We had already agreed to do every signle thing and beyond everything that was in that order," Pitzarella says. "We told the EPA that we cannot comply with their order because the basis of it is factually incorrect -- which is that Range is the cause."

At the time, the EPA wasn't clear on whether the pollution had been caused by fracking or by a leaking well bore, but there's no answer to that in today's suit. A Department of Justice spokesman declined to comment beyond what was in the complaint, which is posted below in full.

EPA v. Range Resources, Jan. 18, 2011

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Patrick Michels
Contact: Patrick Michels