The EPA Says It Was Right About Its Range Resources Investigation After All

When a natural gas company is accused of making an oopsie during fracking, the EPA's response has typically been to come down hard on the company at first but then back away. That was one of the the major plot points of the Gasland documentaries. Environmentalists and homeowners accuse the agency of being spineless in the face of industry pressure.

Well, the EPA has a new message for all of you haters. In a new report by the EPA's internal watchdog, the agency is finally defending its decision to investigate Range Resources and the company's possible contamination of a water well in Parker County.

True, this ruling comes more than a year after the EPA suddenly dropped that investigation and let Range Resources off the hook. But better to stand up for your investigations late and after after everyone calls you a wimp than to never stand up for anything at all.

"Based on the evidence the EPA uncovered regarding the nature and source of the contamination in the residential wells," says inspector general's report, "the EPA determined that a Range Resources gas production well was the most likely contributor to the contamination."

This EPA inspector general's report was released to the public on December 24, timing that "shows the Obama administration is obviously embarrassed by its findings," Bruce Baizel, a director at environmental group Earthworks, said in a statement. "As they should be. The withdrawal of Obama's EPA is an abject failure of its mission to protect Americans' health and environment." Hey, maybe the EPA was just looking for an excuse to not have to go to that annoying relative's house on Christmas Eve!

This report was made not at the request of environmentalists but by the EPA critics on the other side of the ideological coin. Republicans in Congress had accused the EPA's regional office Texas of being too tough the gas industry. Those Republicans are now also predictably critical of this report. The EPA just can't win.

All the drama began in 2010 after Steve Lipsky noticed some strange things about the water coming out of his private well at his home in Parker County. For instance, he could light it on fire. The EPA first issued an emergency order against Range Resources to better monitor the well and to provide drinking water to the Lipsky family and others who might be affected. Range resisted, so the Justice Department filed a complaint on behalf of the EPA in 2011.

In March 2012, the federal government withdrew its complaint, as the Observer reported in a cover story about the Lipsky case last year. At the time, the EPA said that in exchange for dropping the enforcement action, Range would agree to cooperate with a nicer investigation into the effects of fracking on drinking water, where no one would get in trouble. "Resolving the lawsuits with Range allows EPA to shift the Agency in this particular case away from litigation and toward a joint effort on the science and safety of energy extraction," was the EPA's original, inoffensive statement explaining why it was backing off.

The latest report offers a new explanation for why the federal government withdrew: The EPA was confident in its scientific evidence, the report says, but found that there was a high political risk in pursuing the complaint, because "there was always a risk that the judge could rule against the EPA."

What happens now? The internal report says the EPA should do some more investigating. "Although EPA officials believe that current residents are not presently at risk, the overall risk faced by current and future area residents has not been determined," the report says. "We believe that the EPA needs to implement cost-effective steps to better gauge the risk and document and disseminate its findings to affected residents."

To do that, the EPA will have to work with some tough foes: the Texas Railroad Commission, the state regulator that has been much more favorable to the gas industry, and with Range, a deep-pocked company now suing Lipsky in a $3 million defamation case.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn