The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency followed legal requirements in issuing an emergency order against Range Resources Corp. for water contamination in Texas, the agency’s independent investigation arm said yesterday.
The Office of Inspector General said in a report the EPA has agreed to take a new look at whether dangerous levels of explosive methane or other toxins persist in the local homeowners’ water wells, as investigators turned aside complaints from Republicans that the agency over-reached.
The “watchdog has confirmed that the EPA was justified in stepping in to protect residents who were and still are in imminent danger,” Sharon Wilson, a Dallas-based organizer with the environmental group Earthworks, said in a statement.
The investigators rejected complaints from Republican lawmakers led by Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who asked the IG’s office last June to probe a finding by the local EPA office in 2010 that natural gas drilling contaminated the drinking-water wells of two homeowners. The case gained national importance because it was one of the just three instances where the agency under President Barack Obama linked gas drilling, which is booming with the use of hydraulic fracturing, to individual water woes.
The EPA subsequently settled the case with Range and withdrew the legal filing against the company. The lawmakers argued that this showed the agency overstepped its authority in linking fracking to the individual water contamination, while Wilson and other environmental advocates said it showed it wilted before political pressure.
The IG’s report said that the EPA could both issue the emergency order and had the discretion to settle the case on its terms. It quoted EPA officials who worried about the legal ramifications of pursuing the complaint in court.
“Officials told us that although they believed they were on firm ground there was always a risk that the judge could rule against the EPA,” the report said. “If that happened, it would risk establishing case law that could weaken the EPA’s ability to enforce” similar emergency orders, it said.
Under hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, water, sand and chemicals are shot underground to free trapped gas or oil.
Range, based in Fort Worth, Texas, said gas was already present in local water and its operations haven’t been the cause.
“We’re pleased that when EPA headquarters examined the facts of the case, they fully withdrew their order,” Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range, said in an e-mail.
Republicans argued that Al Armendariz, the top local EPA official, overstepped in this case. Armendariz resigned in April 2012 after a video surfaced of him pledging to “crucify” companies that violate environmental laws to make an example of them.
When Armendariz was in charge, the EPA initially linked Range to the water contamination of homeowner Steve Lipsky, who posted a video online of a hose linked to his well that contained so much methane he could turn it into a flamethrower. In its press statements the agency tied the case to fracking, which industry said was unjustified.
“The question is not did EPA meet the minimum requirements in statute to issue the emergency order, but rather did Armendariz -- who publicly said he wanted to ‘crucify’ oil and gas -- inappropriately abuse his office to persecute an industry he openly protested against,” Inhofe said in a statement yesterday. “I intend to follow up and demand answers.”
Wilson and other environmental groups are urging the EPA to pursue the Texas case, as well as two other complaints they say the agency dropped to appease industry.
In Pavillion, Wyoming, the agency stopped a scientific probe before it was complete, and agreed to let the state lead the investigation. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, the agency also concluded that gas drilling wasn’t contaminating water.
“EPA chose to step away from enforcing the law when drinking water was unsafe,” Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a blog yesterday. “As the IG has confirmed, EPA has never determined the overall risk to area residents, including whether their water is contaminated.”