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Texas Water Official: Evidence Lacking in Well Contamination Case

A Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) hearing intended to get to the bottom of the matter of whether the Barnett Shale gas drilling activities of Range Resources Corp. led to the contamination of two water wells in Parker County, TX, has been postponed to Jan. 18 from Monday (Jan. 10). In the meantime, one interested observer told Shale Daily that both research that condemns the company and other findings that would exonerate it are incomplete.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cited Range for contaminating the wells (see Shale Daily, Dec. 9, 2010), an independent study conducted by the "Powell Barnett Shale Newsletter" purports to exonerate the company. Others in the industry have lined up behind the Powell opinion that the natural gas in the water wells is a natural occurrence and not the result of drilling.

Bob Patterson is general manager of the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, which encompasses the area of the natural gas wells in question. Because the area has a history of gas turning up in water wells, he told Shale Daily he "would lean toward the fact that it's a natural contamination, just from the history." But he said neither side has proven its case.

"There are some things that are well known about the issue at this point, and there are some things that are certainly not clear cut," Patterson said. "Number one, the two private water wells are very definitely contaminated with natural gas and/or chemicals. That's well known. Both of the entities that have done analysis on that water have shown that they agree on that issue."

And that's where they part. EPA has said it traced the contamination to Range's production activities. Powell's research shows this is not the case.

"At this point I cannot tell you the credibility of either of the analyses because many times...there is a disagreement by scientists on any issue of that type. And I think that's what we have here. So we're awaiting further information that would show sound science and evaluation of those issues," Patterson said. He added that contrary to what the EPA has said, there is not yet sound evidence to prove that the region's Trinity Aquifer has been contaminated.

Arguing against Range having responsibility for what's in the wells is the region's history for spewing out gas where it was not being sought. There is plenty of history of naturally occurring gas in water wells in the area, Patterson said. "As recently as 2005 there is a documented case of a water well driller documenting the fact with pictures and a log report showing that a well in that immediate area had gas contamination and showed a picture of the natural gas flaming out of the water well," Patterson said. "I believe it was less than 200 feet deep.

"In that area there is a fair amount of natural gas drilling activity and has been for a number of years, so the actual contaminant in that water well drilling in that case, the source of it is unknown."

And it's likely to remain unknown for a while at least. The hearing called by the RRC, originally for Monday, was to bring together officials from Range and the EPA. The RRC has blasted the EPA for stepping into the state's investigation, which it has said is ongoing. EPA said it would not attend the Monday hearing.

"Given that there are serious ongoing federal enforcement actions against this company, EPA will not participate in  the upcoming hearing," the agency said in a statement. "We hope that the hearing brings about a full and independent review of Range Resource's activities by the Texas Railroad Commission."

Late in December Range filed a motion to compel Alfredo Almendariz, administrator for EPA region six, to comply with discovery. Also named in the motion were landowner Steven Lipsky and his environmental consultant, Alisa Rich, president of Wolf Eagle Environmental of Flower Mound, TX. Powell and others have been frequent critics of environmental contamination investigations conducted by Rich.

At a prehearing conference at the RRC the motion to compel Almendariz to comply with discovery was removed to federal court. However, Lipsky is now to be deposed on Jan. 14 and Rich on Jan. 17. The hearing at the RRC has been reset to 9 a.m. CST Jan 18.

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