The Dallas Office of the Environmental Protection Agency issued the following press release today:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered a natural gas company in Forth Worth Texas to take immediate action to protect homeowners living near one of their drilling operations who have complained about flammable and bubbling drinking water coming out of their tap. EPA testing has confirmed that extremely high levels of methane in their water pose an imminent and substantial risk of explosion or fire. EPA has also found other contaminants including benzene, which can cause cancer, in their drinking water.
EPA has determined that natural gas drilling near the homes by Range Resources in Parker County, Texas has caused or contributed to the contamination of at least two residential drinking water wells. Therefore, today, EPA has ordered the company to step in immediately to stop the contamination, provide drinking water and provide methane gas monitors to the homeowners. EPA has issued an imminent and substantial endangerment order under Section 1431 of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Parker County is located west of Fort Worth, Texas.
In late August, EPA received a citizen's complaint regarding concerns with a private drinking water well. During the inspector's follow-up inquiry, EPA learned that the homeowner had previously complained to the Texas Railroad Commission as well as the company, but their concerns were not adequately addressed by the State or the company. EPA then conducted an on-site inspection of the private drinking water well with the homeowner and a neighboring residence, and returned to collect both water and gas samples. These samples were sent to an EPA certified laboratory for analysis. The data was received in late November 2010 and was carefully reviewed by EPA scientists. The EPA scientists have conducted isotopic fingerprint analysis and concluded the source of the drinking water well contamination to closely match that from Range Resources' natural gas production well.
EPA has asked the company to conduct a full scale investigation. EPA is requiring Range Resources under this order to:
- Immediately deliver potable water to the two residences;
- Immediately sample soil gas around the residences;
- Immediately sample all nearby drinking water wells to determine the extent of aquifer contamination; and
- Provide methane gas monitors to alert homeowners of dangerous conditions in their houses.
- Develop a plan to remediate areas of the aquifer that have been contaminated.
- And, to investigate the structural integrity of its nearby natural gas well to determine if it is the source of contamination.
EPA has data showing the presence of natural gas at two wells. EPA is ordering Range to investigate other nearby properties to determine if their drinking water is at risk. EPA has been in contact with a rural water system operator approximately 1 mile away, and they are taking steps to test their water for natural gas constituents. Residents of other homes are advised to contact EPA immediately if their wells seize up or if their water begins to effervesce. EPA will contact nearby private well home owners to advise them of our actions and to let them know that we've required the company to test their wells.
The uncontrolled release of natural gas can be dangerous since it is odorless and flammable and it escapes facilities. Uncontrolled release of natural gas inside a building or home can cause a fire or explosion. Drinking water contaminated with natural gas impurities such as benzene is unhealthy.
EPA believes that natural gas plays a key role in our nation's clean energy future and the process known as hydraulic fracturing is one way of accessing that vital resource. However, we want to make sure natural gas development is safe. As we announced earlier this year, we are in the process of conducting a comprehensive study on the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.
In the meantime, EPA has made energy extraction sector compliance with environmental laws one of EPA's National Enforcement Initiatives for 2011 to 2013. The initiative focuses on areas of the country where energy extraction activities such as hydraulic fracturing are concentrated, and EPA's enforcement activities will vary with the type of activity and pollution problem presented.
To my knowledge, this is the first time the EPA has directly intervened in response to a complaint by landowners of groundwater contamination from horizontal shale wells. The EPA's press release emphasizes that the Texas Railroad Commission did "not adequately address" the landowners' complaints.
The EPA's letter to Plains Resources may be found here: http://www.epa.gov/region6/6xa/pdf/range_letter.pdf
The EPA's emergency order may be found here: http://www.epa.gov/region6/6xa/pdf/range_order.pdf
The two Range wells are the Butler Unit 1H and the Teal Unit 1H, both Barnett Shale wells drilled in 2009. The owner of one water well first noticed gas in his water in late December 2009, about four months after the Range wells began producing. One of the water wells lies about 120 feet in horizontal distance from the track of the Butler well bore, and the other about 470 feet from the Butler well bore. The EPA did a chemical analysis of the gas found in one domestic water well and found that it was substantially likely that it came from one of the Range wells.
The EPA order says that it consulted with the Railroad Commission and shared its findings with the Commission, and that "appropriate State and local authorities have not taken sufficient action to address the endagerment described herein and do not intend to take such action at this time." The EPA ordered Range to (1) provide replacement potable water supplies for the owners of the affected water wells, (2) install meters in the landowners' dwellings to detect gas, (3) provide EPA a list of all private water wells within 3,000 feet of the two Range wells along with a plan to sample the water in those wells, (4) submit a plan to conduct testing of soils and indoor air around the dwellings served by the water wells, and (5) submit a plan to identify the gas flow pathways to the aquifer, eliminate such flows, and remediate areas of the aquifer impacted by the gas flows into the aquifer.
Update: Range Resources has denied that its wells have contaminated groundwater in Parker County. "The investigation has revealed that methane in the water aquifer existed long before our activity and likely is naturally occurring migration from several shallow zones immediately below the water aquifer," the company said. Two producing Range natural gas wells in the area "are completed in the Barnett Shale formation, which is over a mile below the water zone." The Texas Railroad Commission has scheduled a hearing on the matter for January 10. http://www.star-telegram.com/2010/12/08/2690723/range-resources-denies-epa-allegation.html