In the Fracking Debate, Residents and Politicians Are Turning Up the Heat on the EPA

We wrote last week about how the Environmental Protection Agency is catching heat from both sides of the fracking debate, for its continued backing away from research suggesting that drilling for natural gas can contaminate drinking water.

It's happened in Parker County, Texas, as well as in the Pavillion area of Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania. Homeowners and environmentalists say the EPA is dropping its investigations to avoid offending the oil and gas industry, while Republicans are seizing on it for general ain't-the-government-dumb reasons.

"It feels like just a big cover-up," says Steve Lipsky, a Parker County resident who blames the EPA as much as Fort-Worth based gas company Range Resources for his water problems.

A Dimock local tells Unfair Park another story about the EPA's mixed signals.

Ray Kemble, an out-of-work truck driver who worked for the gas industry before he started speaking out against fracking, says he lives across from a gas well. A local newspaper reports that his home is one of the 19 Dimock households whose water was found by the state to be tainted with methane tied to faulty gas wells.

In March 2012, an EPA employee informed him that his water was perfectly safe, he says. When Kemble challenged that assertion, he says that the EPA agent suggested to Kemble that he was getting outside pressure from his bosses in the EPA to downplay potential risks.

"He knows the water's bad, but he won't say it publicly," Kemble said in an interview last week. "He [kept] going back telling guys 'off he record' so it sounds like he's trying to help you."

Kemble identified the EPA employee as Richard Rupert, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA. Rupert denied Kemble's story.

"That's not what I said; we were very careful about what we told people," Rupert said by phone. Instead, Rupert claims that EPA agents simply gave people the results of their water tests without making judgements about the results. "I don't know that we made any statements about safe or unsafe or anything ... and I would be very upset if you were to put in the newspaper anything other than that because I never said that."

Rupert added: "I like Ray. He's a character, definitely a character. I have a great deal of compassion for the problems there that people are having." He referred the rest of our questions to an EPA press officer.

EPA spokesman David Bloomgren stuck with the EPA's official stance -- that in the Dimock water case, "we didn't find anything that would have given us cause for a further investigation" and that the EPA is working on a new study of fracking's potential impacts on water, scheduled to be released in 2014.

But Kemble insists that Rupert and a toxicologist visited his home last year and told him, "oh, your water's good to drink." After hearing this, Kemble said he offered them some, but that they both refused and admitted that his arsenic levels were three times over the legal limit. During another visit, Kemble claims, Rupert suggested that he was being "ordered higher up in he department to get out of Dimock."

Another angry homeowner tells a similar story in the HBO documentary, Gasland 2, which aired on July 8. Toward the end of the movie, director Josh Fox interviews a man identified as "Scott" over the phone. (Another activist, Craig Stevens, says that "Scott" is Scott Ely, a whistle-blower who was profiled several years ago in the Scranton-Times Tribune; we left a message for him).

About one hour and 50 minutes into the film, Scott tells Fox a story about an unnamed EPA agent who also gave him mixed messages about his water tests. Scott says that the agent first told him that his water was safe, but then added: "Well, off the record, we recommend that you don't use or drink your water."

When we asked the EPA spokesman about that interview, he declined to comment.

These incidents, if true, wouldn't be the only examples of EPA employees suggesting that their bosses are putting politics ahead of science. Earlier this month, anonymous, "high-ranking agency officials" also indicated to ProPublica, an investigative news site, that pressure from the oil industry was squelching the EPA's ability to freely study oil and gas drilling.

Locals from Dimock, meanwhile, have made the news frequently in their fight against the natural gas industry. Cabot, a Houston-based oil company and one of several that has drilled in Dimock, was sued by 36 households after residents alleged that local drilling operations were threatening their health and water. Cabot settled with most of the families last year.

And this May, the Scranton Times-Tribune's Laura Legere obtained a massive cache of government letters showing that Pennsylvania documented 83 cases of "drilling-related impacts on water supplies" between 2008 and 2012.

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