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Environment

Fracking Inquiry Justified

Oversight: Inspector general’s report supports EPA action on methane leaks to drinking water

by Jeff Johnson
January 6, 2014 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 92, ISSUE 1

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Credit: AP
Parker County, Texas, resident Steve Lipsky flares methane from his drinking water well, one of two sampled by EPA.
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Credit: AP
Parker County, Texas, resident Steve Lipsky flares methane from his drinking water well, one of two sampled by EPA.

EPA had legal authority to investigate and take action on complaints from Texas residents about methane leaks to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. That’s the conclusion of a report by EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). EPA could have done more to protect the public from methane exposure through drinking water, the report adds.

OIG examined the agency’s response in 2010 to complaints from residents of Parker County, Texas, of high levels of methane in two drinking water wells. The residents had turned to the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees oil and gas development as well as pollution. Dissatisfied with the commission’s response, according to OIG, the residents went to EPA, which conducted an investigation through its emergency authorities.

EPA found methane at unsafe and explosive levels in well samples. Using isotopic analysis, EPA concluded that the gas in groundwater matches the gas produced by Range Resources Corp. at two nearby fracking sites.

EPA issued an emergency order requiring Range to provide drinking water to residents and take mitigation actions.

The Railroad Commission and Range disagreed with EPA’s analysis, according to the report. Range did, however, provide residential drinking water for a time, but did nothing more. EPA began to take legal action but then opted to accept a nonbinding agreement with Range that the company will conduct additional testing at more wells.

OIG recommends that EPA continue evaluating these wells and closely oversee Range’s testing. It also calls for EPA to continue to advise residents of possible contamination.

Residents living near fracking sites in Pennsylvania and Wyoming, as well as in Parker County, have complained of methane-contaminated water and have urged EPA to take stronger action. Also, a small but growing body of peer-reviewed research has found methane contamination in groundwater near drilling sites (C&EN, July 1, 2013, page 15).

Oil and gas drilling advocates have downplayed the claims. The OIG study was requested by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) and five other Republican senators who say EPA exceeded its authority in Parker County.

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