Duke University tests of drinking water in Weatherford show significantly higher levels of methane than testing by Range Resources Ltd., EPA and the state relied on testing by Range

Duke University Fracking Tests Reveal Dangers Driller’s Data Missed by Mark Drajem, January 10, 2014, Bloomberg
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that a group of Texas homes near a gas-drilling operation didn’t have dangerous levels of methane in their water, it relied on tests conducted by the driller itself. Now, independent tests from Duke University researchers have found combustible levels of methane in some of the wells, and homeowners want the EPA to re-open the case. The previously undisclosed Duke testing illustrate the complaints of critics who say the agency is reluctant to sanction a booming industry that has pushed down energy prices for consumers, created thousands of jobs and buoyed the economy.

“I don’t understand why they would let the company that was accused of doing the wrongdoing conduct the tests,” said Shelly Perdue, who lives near the two wells in Weatherford, 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of Dallas. “It doesn’t make sense.” The driller, Range Resources Corp. (RRC), denies that its drilling in the area is the source of any contamination and says its testing was conducted by an independent laboratory. “Range used state and federally approved testing methodologies that are internationally recognized and those results have found historically consistent water quality,” Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for the Fort Worth, Texas-based company, said in an e-mail. “Range’s operations did not cause or contribute to the long-standing and well-documented matter of naturally occurring methane.”

Closely Watched
The EPA says states have the primary responsibility to keep drinking water safe. It agreed to let the driller test the water — something the agency says is not uncommon — as part of a settlement of a case the EPA brought in 2010 on behalf of homeowners. The agency will meet with state regulators next week to discuss the complaints, though it doesn’t intend to conduct it’s own tests, said David Bloomgren, an EPA spokesman.

The Weatherford case is one of only three in which the EPA has preliminarily linked water woes to hydraulic fracturing. In Pavillion, Wyoming, an EPA investigation tied fracking to chemicals found in test wells. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, the agency stepped in to provide water to homeowners who said fracking tainted their wells.

‘Imminent Danger’
When the EPA first got involved in the Pavillion and Dimock cases, it did the water testing itself. Last June the EPA bowed out of the Pavillion investigation and left the Wyoming state government in charge. In the Dimock case, EPA’s own tests found the water there safe, and the agency dropped the case. In 2010 the EPA did its own testing in Weatherford and found dangerous levels of methane it termed “an imminent and substantial endangerment” to homeowners. It issued a notice of violation and sued Range soon after. Two years later, the agency settled with an agreement that called for Range to conduct four sets of tests of 20 wells in the area. The results showed minimal levels of methane, except in one well that has been disconnected by the homeowner due to the high gas levels, according to a report by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General released Dec. 24.

The report, requested by a lawmaker who suspected the agency had treated Range too harshly, supported the agency’s original 2010 findings against the driller and questioned the quality and utility of Range’s follow-up tests.

Methane Levels
The inspector general identified “questions” about Range’s testing, including that “EPA did not review or approve Range Resources’ sampling protocol, nor did it review or approve the data collection and analytical methods during the course of the study,” the report said.

Meanwhile, scientists from Duke have found high levels of methane in area wells. Duke provided its data to homeowners and some of the results were passed along to regulators at the EPA and the state. The results from Duke show the water from many homes exceeds the level of 10 milligrams per liter that the U.S. Geological Survey has set as a minimum safety level, a finding at odds with the results from Range. The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas drilling in the state, reached the same finding in 2011. Residents appealed to the panel last year after receiving the results from Duke and other independent researchers, and the commission opened a new investigation, said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman. …

Steve Lipsky, another homeowner, said he’s trying to get the EPA to re-test the water and force Range to permanently close its wells with cement. He sued Range, which countersued alleging defamation and business disparagement. “EPA is our best hope,” Lipsky said in an interview. Unless measures are taken, “something catastrophic is going to happen”

A team of researchers led by Rob Jackson, an environmental sciences professor at Duke, have been taking samples from homeowners’ wells and performing the isotopic analysis to try to determine whether the gas found in well samples is the same as the gas from the Barnett shale, where Range is producing. … Duke is a leader in research on the environmental impact of fracking and maintains a database of water tests from hundreds of wells around the country. Its Weatherford testing, funded by the National Science Foundation and Duke, is part of a series of studies it is conducting to try to determine if fracking is polluting water. Jackson and his colleagues are writing a paper about whether the gas drilling is to blame for the methane in the wells, and he declined to discuss those findings before they are reviewed by peers and published. They have, however, provided the raw data to homeowners that show methane levels much higher than federal guidelines or those found by Range.

“It’s fair to say that based on our sampling there’s enough to go on and continue sampling there,” Jackson said in an interview. The Duke data, which were provided to Bloomberg by the homeowners, hasn’t been previously reported.

Result Discrepancies
Homeowner Perdue’s case illustrates the discrepancies in the results. Range’s consultants found 4.2 milligrams per liter of methane in her water in a test taken in mid 2012, and 20 milligrams in November 2012. Duke’s tests a month later found a value of 54.7. Perdue said technicians for Range collected samples differently than those for Duke — taking it from a vented holding tank in one instance — and didn’t capture all the dissolved gas found in the well. Separate from questions about the amount of gas present is what caused it to appear. Range says the gas is naturally occurring, and the state so far has agreed.

A consultant hired by the EPA as part of its initial investigation in 2010 concluded that the gas was chemically identical to that being extracted by Range. The consultant, Geoffrey Thyne, analyzed the isotopes of the gas in Lipsky’s wells and the gas from Range’s production wells, and found them to be a match. Thyne, who was criticized by the gas industry for his findings, said he’s now doing follow-up analysis to see whether those initial results hold up. “I’ve seen no data that makes me want to change my original opinion,” Thyne said in an interview. [Emphasis added]

EPA, Texas officials to meet on Range contamination case by Mike Soraghan, January 14, 2014, E&E News
U.S. EPA officials in Dallas are to meet this week with Texas oil and gas regulators about ongoing complaints that gas wells drilled by Range Resources Corp. contaminated drinking water in a neighborhood west of Fort Worth. The meeting follows a report by EPA’s inspector general that chided the agency for not being able to say for certain, after more than three years, whether people in the area are in danger from having methane in their water (Greenwire, Dec. 24, 2013). “The overall risk faced by current and future area residents has not been determined,” the report said.

EPA charged Range in December 2010 with contaminating two water wells in Parker County, Texas, near Weatherford. But the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that oversees oil and gas drilling, exonerated the company. In March 2012, EPA abruptly dropped the case. Railroad Commission inspectors went back and sampled the drinking water again last year after several homeowners in the area filed new complaints with the state oil and gas agency (EnergyWire, Sept. 18, 2013). No action has been taken. The state-federal meeting is to be about that testing and those complaints, said EPA spokesman David Bloomgren. EPA has no plans to start doing its own testing in the area.

Steve Lipsky, whose complaints about methane in his water started the EPA investigation in 2010, said he’s not sure what to expect from the meeting. He is also one of the homeowners who filed new complaints in August. “Who knows what the Railroad Commission is going to do?” he said. “We all know they don’t know what they’re doing.”

The IG report said the Dallas-based officials in EPA’s Region 6 were justified in bringing the case in 2010 and officials in Washington were within their discretion when they dropped it. The report’s harshest swipe may have been at the Railroad Commission, which told IG investigators it needed “definitive proof” to bring a case against Range but couldn’t say what that proof would be (EnergyWire, Jan. 2). A spokeswoman for the Texas agency responded that it bases decisions “on science and fact.” EPA responded in the report that it can still bring another enforcement action in the Range case. … At the time the case was dropped, Range agreed to continue voluntarily testing about 20 wells in the area for a year. Range sent the tests to EPA, which sent them to the Railroad Commission. No action was taken, even when one of the tests showed dangerous levels of methane in one of the wells.

The rest of the tests indicated there were not dangerous levels of methane in the water. But the IG said EPA didn’t oversee the sampling closely enough. The agency didn’t review or approve the sampling protocol of Range’s contractor, or the data collection methods used. And the test results Range sent the agency lacked some supporting documentation.

After the IG report was issued on Christmas Eve last year, Range issued the following statement: “We agree with the Texas Railroad Commission which determined that Range’s activities did not cause or contribute to the long-standing matter of naturally occurring methane in the Trinity aquifer and we’re pleased that when EPA headquarters examined the facts of the case, they fully withdrew their order. Additional testing more than three years later have determined that water quality is consistent with historical data.” [Emphasis added]

Steve Lipsky Responds to Report Clearing EPA of Wrongdoing in Fracking Water Contamination Study by Julie Dermansky, DeSmogBlog, January 13, 2014, Truth-out
Steven Lipsky’s phone was busy on the morning of Christmas Eve. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General had just released its report concluding the EPA was justified in intervening to protect drinking water from hydraulic fracturing in Weatherford, Texas, despite assertions to the contrary from the oil and gas industry and Congressional Republicans.

In 2010, Mr. Lipsky alerted the agency to his contaminated well water and the fact that he could light his water on fire.
An EPA investigation determined that Range Resources’ hydraulic fracturing activities caused the contamination. Republican senators had quickly initiated an investigation of the report, questioning the agency’s motivation and the validity of its findings.

According to the Associated Press, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) has dismissed the Inspector General’s report confirming that the EPA was justified in issuing an Emergency Order to Range Resources, the drilling company. But others, including Sharon Wilson, Gulf Regional Organizer for environmental group Earthworks, filmmaker Josh Fox and former EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz see the report as vindication of the EPA and Steven Lipsky.

So does Mr. Lipsky feel vindicated? No, he does not, and he says he won’t until the entire story is told and the truth is completely revealed. Additionally, Lipsky wants to see an end to the $3 million defamation lawsuit filed by Range Resources against him. When I spoke to Lipsky on Christmas day, he told me the findings in the Inspector General report are just the tip of the iceberg.  His neighbors are still in a perilous situation and no specific actions are being taken to provide a remedy for explosive contaminates in their water. 

… Here is an abridged version of my interview with Steven Lipsky:

I give the Inspector General credit for this report. It is the first positive thing that has happened in the last couple of years. It’s a start, but when the entire truth is told, that is when I’ll be vindicated. Our family has been through a tough time, but that is not in the report.  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

This report notes one of the reasons the EPA lifted the emergency order is because I found another water source for my family. 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 EPA no longer needed to protect you after you took preemptive measures to safeguard your family and have water trucked in. What is your reaction to that? I hope anyone whose water gets contaminated by industry has the money to do what I did. I found an alternative solution to using my water well out of necessity and common sense. I had to find a way I could live in my house without endangering my family. I could not afford to walk away from my house. I still have mortgage payments to make.

The EPA stood back when I was sued by Range Resources for over $3 million and did nothing about it. Range Resources has accused me of libel and the EPA knows it is not true.

You sued Range Resources after the EPA concluded the company was responsible for contaminating your well. When the EPA later rescinded their order, what was the impact on your case?

They made me the sacrificial lamb. I’m not a scientist, but when the EPA did isotopic testing, which is like finger printing for contaminants, and told me the guilty party was Range Resources, I sued. I trusted the proof they came up with. When the EPA rescinded their order they never contacted me to explain. They just left me hanging. I found out through the media. Basically the whole basis of my case was that the government said Range Resources did it.

The EPA’s explanation for rescinding the order now helps nothing. The way I interpret EPA’s rationale is, A) We don’t have the money to do the right thing; B) You have clean water now even though you paid to get it with your own money; C) We think the better thing to do with our money rather than stand up to Range Resources is to do a cooperative study with them. It turns out the EPA’s sacrifice didn’t get them what they were promised. Range Resources hasn’t given them the access they need to do the planned testing, as far as I know.

The report states: The EPA believes the risks to homeowners in the area have been reduced.  However you have seen recent test results to the contrary from an ongoing Duke University study, and tests of your own done with the same testing equipment industry uses. The new data shows things are more dangerous than ever for your neighbors. Are you surprised this report didn’t reflect the current test results you have shared with the agency?

The Inspector General didn’t review the new tests. I went to the EPA a few months ago, to Lisa Feldt, and gave her documents and video of everything that show that the Texas Railroad Commission still isn’t doing its job. The EPA has all the numbers from Duke and from tests done with Stacey Systems equipment which meets the industry standards that prove it is still a dangerous situation here.

So, in fact, your neighbors are not safe?

Absolutely, they remain in danger. And whenever I re-hooked up my own well to check the readings, they are higher than ever.

Your case is not the only one the EPA backed away from. They did similar things in Dimock, Pennsylvania, and Pavillion, Wyoming. Why do you think the agency is backing away from their own findings when it comes to the effects hydraulic fracturing has on private property?

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.

What toll has this fight taken and what you have learned from it?

This has been a nightmare. The world turned on me and it put me in a depression that almost killed me. It wasn’t until I started getting the information from documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act giving me proof of what was going on that I began to feel better.  From the documents I have obtained, there’s enough information for the guilty parties to hang themselves.  So I’ve rolled my sleeves up. Enough is enough. I could give up and die, or do the right thing.

Every day I fight back, I get more information. I have enough information to give to the public so that they can see the truth. As long as I can get the truth to the public, things will change.  It might take years for all the facts to come to the surface, but they will. You can try to hide it or bury it, but the truth will emerge.

There is one thing in the report’s conclusion that seems unclear. It says, “In its official comments and in subsequent meetings, the EPA agreed with and provided corrective actions that address our recommendations. All recommendations are resolved with corrective actions underway. No final response to this report is required.” What corrective measures are those, since the emergency order was rescinded?

None that I’m aware of. [Emphasis added]

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