Inspector General May Have Cleared EPA in Flaming Water Case, But Parker County Man Says It Caved to Politics

The EPA inspector general dumped it right before Christmas, when the media had checked out on holiday auto-pilot. Because of this curious timing, the report didn't get nearly the play it should have. But it can be summed up like this -- given the EPA's statutory authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the emergency order it issued to Range Resources in Parker County over groundwater contamination was pretty standard.

That isn't to say that the portrait it paints of the agency is glowing, or that it looks any less like it hung Steve Lipsky out to dry. The homeowner reported problems with his water well to the Texas Railroad Commission back in 2010. His pump was vapor-locking; his water, effervescing. It didn't seem like coincidence that this was mere months after Range Resources began fracking operations nearby. Less watchdog than lapdog, the commission was taking its time investigating even as its representatives told Lipsky that the gas accumulation might not be safe. The EPA, meanwhile, had done some of its own testing and detected levels of benzene and methane that were above federal limits. Convinced that the danger was clear and present, and that the commission had no intention of doing anything about it anytime soon, EPA issued an emergency order compelling Range to provide drinking water, to identify the extent of the contamination, and to stop it.

Range ignored most of the EPA's order. The commission exonerated it shortly thereafter (though, in this report, commission staff and officials admitted to the IG that they don't know what sort of evidence they'd require for a finding of contamination, because they'd never made such a finding). In response, Range stopped supplying drinking water, and removed explosivity meters from the affected homes. Faced with Range's intransigence, EPA sued.

It dropped the lawsuit in 2012. But why? According to this report, it sounds like EPA thought the case was complicated, expensive and that it had a 50/50 shot at winning. Who wants to gamble setting a precedent with a federal judge? Fair enough. It figured Lipsky was out of danger because he was having water trucked out to his home instead of using the stuff coming out of the ground, which he can still set fire to.

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

EPA also announced early on that as part of its agreement, Range would continue to conduct testing in the area for a year and participate in EPA's sweeping study on fracking. So, how's all that going? The IG found that there were no quality controls on the test results Range submitted and no way for the EPA to verify them. What's more, the testing doesn't include a search for potential contamination pathways, or even testing of the well that launched the controversy to begin with: LIpsky's. The IG believes the danger may not have passed, and that EPA should do a better job of following up. As for the agency's landmark study, it still hasn't been able to set terms with Range for access to its drilling sites.

Sounds like Range got the better end of this deal. And Lipsky's still has a $3 million defamation suit filed by the company to contend with. You've got to wonder how he'd feel after reading this. Wonder no more. He did, and he's disgusted.

"This report notes one of the reasons the EPA lifted the emergency order is because I found another water source for my family," Lipsky told desmogblog.com. "So if you have $100,000 of your own money to protect yourself, you don't need the EPA's help? What kind of conclusion is that? It is political.

"The report cites the financial reasons the EPA rescinded its emergency order, but it doesn't bring up the role political pressure played. The EPA didn't have the money to do the right thing? Though the scientific tests they ran show Range Resources contaminated the area's water, they back away from their emergency order though circumstances have not changed? That is political pressure not financial."

Politics. And limited resources. Without naming names, so as not to cause trouble for anyone, I can tell you a person in the EPA told me it isn't about Range Resources. It is about the entire oil and gas coalition. The industry has the resources, and this is a battle the government couldn't afford to fight.

For more background, check out this feature story from 2012.

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Brantley Hargrove