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EPA: Barnett Wells Contaminated Drinking Water

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued an emergency order against Range Resources Corp. that claims at least two drinking water wells in Parker County, TX, "have been significantly impacted by...methane contamination" from its oil and gas production facilities in the region.

"...[T]he operation of these facilities presents, or may present, an imminent and substantial endangerment to public health," EPA said in a letter to the Fort Worth, TX-based producer. EPA told Range that within 48 hours of receipt of the order, which was issued Tuesday, it must provide replacement potable water to the affected residents and install EPA-approved explosivity meters in the dwellings served by the affected wells.

"Based on our findings to date, it's very clear that our activities have not had any impact on the water aquifer in southern Parker County or the subject water wells," Range said Wednesday. "Range's wells are completed in the Barnett Shale formation, which is over a mile below the water zone. The investigation has revealed that methane in the water aquifer existed long before our activity and likely is naturally occurring migration from several shallow gas zones immediately below the water aquifer."

The Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), which is the state agency charged with regulating oil and gas matters in Texas, blasted the EPA for stepping into its "actively ongoing" investigation.

"...Commission staff have made no conclusions about possible sources of natural gas and hydrocarbons found in a water well," RRC said. "Additionally, no pathways from a deep hydrocarbon source to the water well have been identified."

RRC said it began investigating a complaint of contamination on Aug. 6. "The RRC continues to actively investigate the area and the complaint, which involves natural gas found in a 200-foot-deep domestic water well in Parker County. Throughout its investigation, the commission staff has shared data cooperatively with EPA staff," RRC said.

The commission said Range is also cooperating with EPA and last Friday agreed to further testing of its well. "Also, Range Resources will perform soil gas surveys that may lead to additional environmental investigation activities, monitor gas concentrations, and offer a water supply to the residence," RRC said.

RRC Chairman Victor G. Carrillo said EPA's order was premature as the commission's investigation is ongoing. Carillo was joined by Commissioners Elizabeth Ames Jones and Michael L. Williams in criticizing EPA for what they consider to be an intrusion of the federal government into state affairs.

"This is Washington politics of the worst kind," Williams said. "The EPA's act is nothing more than grandstanding in an effort to interject the federal government into Texas business."

RRC also outlined the history of its investigation. The commission said its inspectors on Aug. 10 examined the Range Butler Unit No. 1-H and Teal Unit No. 1-H production wells near the property of the landowner who lodged the complaint. Water samples were collected one day later and again about a week later. Then gas samples were collected at the landowner's property and requested from Range, which were later provided on multiple occasions in September and October.

EPA also collected its own samples, RRC said. On Nov. 23 EPA requested a meeting with RRC on the matter, but the commission said it learned last week that the meeting had been postponed. EPA's emergency order followed on Tuesday.

Besides the requirements to provide potable water and explosivity meters, EPA directed Range to submit within five days a list of all private water wells within 3,000 feet of the Butler and Teal wellbore tracks, as well as all of the public water supply system wells in Lake Country Acres.

"This submittal shall include a plan for EPA's approval to sample those wells identified in [the] order to determine if any of those wells have been impacted," the agency said in its letter. "The plan shall include head space (air) and dissolved constituent (water) sampling."

Plans to conduct soil gas surveys and gas flow pathways also are being called for by EPA.

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