Dangerously Explosive Quantities of Gas Found in Parker County Water at Center of Fracking Controversy

As we reported last summer, the Texas Railroad Commission has agreed to take another look at a case of potential water contamination due to fracking in Parker County. It has been nearly three years since the agency, notoriously chummy with the oil and gas companies it is supposed to regulate, exonerated Range Resources.

But ongoing testing proves the regulator has good reason for giving the case a second look: The wells are loaded with natural gas in increasingly explosive quantities, and gas fingerprinting has sourced it to the Barnett Shale -- the productive zone thousands of feet below the surface that Range fracked.

"The leak continues and it's spreading," Geoffrey Thyne, an independent scientist who was commissioned to work the case with EPA, tells The Associated Press. "I can say, based on the current data, there are at least two other wells that show the same source ... which is the Range well."

Range has always contended that the gas is naturally occurring, originating in shallow, gas-bearing rock called the Strawn formation. But by comparing Strawn gas and Barnett gas with the gas found in several homeowners' water wells, Thyne has concluded that it isn't just bubbling up. This gas came from the Barnett, and its only conduit would be Range.

Rob Jackson, a Duke University researcher, is working on a big study on Parker County for the National Science Foundation. His testing has identified concentrations of gas in the well water at up to 10 times the federal threshold.

It's a fascinating, complicated saga (you can read about it in this 2012 cover story) about the intersection between the state's biggest industry, the politicians who serve it, and the folks who live in the gas patch. But it began when Steve Lipsky's water well stopped working. He reported it to the Railroad Commission and, ultimately, to the EPA. Convinced Lipsky and his family were in danger and that the commission had no intention of acting quickly, the EPA issued a rare emergency order, compelling Range to stop the contamination, conduct testing and to supply water.

For reasons that remain murky, EPA dropped its lawsuit against Range, prompting Republican legislators to latch onto the incident as yet another example of its over-reaching, business-hating ethos. The agency's actions have since been cleared by the Inspector General.

As it happens, Duke's Jackson says the agency's withdrawal from the case may have been a bit premature. Lipsky would probably agree, since he's facing a huge defamation lawsuit file against him by Range.

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Brantley Hargrove