EPA takes emergency action in Texas; drinking water contamination is related to natural gas operations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an emergency order yesterday to protect drinking water in Texas. EPA found that imminent and substantial endangerment of human health has occurred or may occur because underground sources of drinking water have been contaminated with benzene, toluene, methane, ethane, propane, and hexane at levels that may endanger human health.

EPA found that two natural gas wells owned by Range Resources are directly related to drinking water contamination in two domestic water wells that get their water from the Trinity Aquifer, which lies under 20 counties.

One of the natural gas wells was drilled only 120 feet from a family's water well--who ever thought that was a good idea?

The natural gas wells were drilled in March and April of 2009 and hydraulically fractured in April, 2009. Residents started noticing problems in their drinking water in December, 2009, approximately four months after the natural gas wells began producing.

The EPA investigated and advised Texas state authorities of its findings, including the risks of explosion, fire, cancer, and other adverse health impacts. According to EPA, Texas state authorities did not respond to citizen complaints, and "appropriate State and local authorities have not taken sufficient action to address the endangerment.....and do not intend to take such action at this time." The emphasis is mine; this lack of state protection is exactly why NRDC supports stronger federal regulation of oil and gas exploration and production.

EPA is ordering Range Resources, among other things, to: immediately deliver potable water to the two residences; install explosivity meters in two homes; submit a plan to sample additional water wells in the area; and submit a plan to eliminate natural gas flow to the aquifer and remediate the contaminated areas of the aquifer.

We are really heartened that EPA is taking emergency action to protect the health of Texas residents. As NRDC's Executive Director Peter Lehner recently blogged, Congress gave EPA the authority to demand that a major polluter clean up its act on behalf of American families, and we support EPA when it carries out this mandate.