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January 17, 2013

Altering the Flow

EPA changed course after oil company protested in long-standing legal battle over gas-tainted water supply

By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI | Associated Press

When a Parker County man reported his family’s drinking water had begun bubbling like champagne, the federal government sounded an alarm: An oil company may have tainted their wells while drilling for natural gas.

At first, the Environmental Protection Agency believed the situation was so serious that it issued a rare emergency order in late 2010 that said at least two homeowners were in immediate danger from a well saturated with flammable methane. More than a year later, the agency rescinded its mandate and refused to explain why.

Now a confidential report obtained by The Associated Press and interviews with company representatives show that the EPA had scientific evidence against the driller, Range Resources, but changed course after the company threatened not to cooperate with a national study into a common form of drilling called hydraulic fracturing. Regulators set aside an analysis that concluded the drilling could have been to blame for the contamination.

For Steve Lipsky, the EPA decision seemed to ignore the dangers to his family. His water supply contains so much methane that the gas in water flowing from a pipe connected to the well can be ignited.

“I just can’t believe that an agency that knows the truth about something like that, or has evidence like this, wouldn’t use it,” said Lipsky, who fears he will have to abandon his dream home in an upscale neighborhood south of Weatherford.

The case isn’t the first in which the EPA initially linked a hydraulic fracturing operation to water contamination and then softened its position after the industry protested.

A similar dispute unfolded in west-central Wyoming in late 2011, when the EPA released an initial report that showed hydraulic fracturing could have contaminated groundwater. After industry and GOP leaders went on the attack, the agency said it had decided to do more testing. It has yet to announce a final conclusion.

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