We've long wondered why EPA backed off of a lawsuit against Range Resources, the driller accused of contaminating a Parker County man's water well with natural gas and levels of benzene, a carcinogen, above safe drinking water standards. It issued an endangerment order against the company in December 2010 -- the first in Texas history -- then tangled with it in federal court for more than a year. And then, with little explanation, it dropped the suit. We wrote a cover story, "Fire in the Hole," detailing the case back in April of last year.
The agency said it would forgo costly litigation and focus on studying the interplay of fracking and groundwater. Range Resources suggested EPA came to realize the error of its ways and backed off. Meanwhile, well-owner Steve Lipsky still has to haul in the water his family uses. He felt, not without justification, that EPA hung him out to dry.
Turns out, Range threatened to sit out the agency's massive fracking study if it didn't call off the hounds, according to The Associated Press.
Here was a company with reams of data on the signal Barnett Shale case of suspected groundwater contamination caused by fracking. So, the agency withdrew from the case in exchange for Range's participation and a little extra monitoring of some of those Parker County water wells.
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Update: Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella says there was no deal. Range general counsel David Poole simply told the agency that the company "could not move forward with any other efforts with the EPA while we were embroiled in a law suit with them."
AP also got its hands on the isotopic analysis conducted by an independent scientist for EPA, comparing Range's natural gas with the gas coming out of Steve Lipsky's water well. It reportedly concluded that they could be the same. That analysis, along with the fact that Lipsky's wells became contaminated just months after Range began fracking, formed the basis for EPA's finding that Range had fouled the water.
The analysis wasn't exactly a smoking gun. The agency said it wasn't enough to pin the blame on Range, because a shallower gas formation would share the same isotopic fingerprint. In this regard, the analysis itself tells us nothing earth-shattering about the case of the flaming water.
EPA has more digging to do.