New Inspector General report finds EPA needs to act to protect Texas residents' drinking water from oil and gas operations

A new report was released today by the EPA Inspector General (IG)—the environmental agency’s independent internal watchdog— regarding drinking water contamination linked with natural gas operations in Parker County, Texas, just west of Ft. Worth. The report is a result of an extremely in-depth investigation by the IG of EPA’s enforcement of this case, which started in 2010, and then the agency’s controversial move to abruptly drop the case in 2012. It’s a complicated case with various legal and scientific factors, but this blog post focuses on some key conclusions in the IG report: (1) there was enough scientific evidence for EPA to take on this case; (2) the overall risk has not yet been determined; and (3) EPA needs to take action to assess the risk to the public.

The IG report includes many important findings. Here are key points on the drinking water contamination:

  • Because of the high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, and methane, an explosive gas, in the drinking water, the EPA appropriately determined that emergency action was needed to protect the public from imminent and substantial endangerment (ISE).
  • EPA correctly concluded that a nearby natural gas well was “the most likely contributor to the contamination of the aquifer that led to the ISE.” Fracking of the well in question was completed in August 2009, and homeowners reported first noticing drinking water changes in late 2009.
  • Range Resources, the company that operated the natural gas well, “declined to meet” with EPA and “did not fully comply with the order” issued by EPA.
  • The state agency involved, the Texas Railroad Commission, “did not plan to act immediately,” even though the methane and benzene levels in the drinking water were dangerous.
  • Perhaps most immediately important: even today, “…the overall risk faced by current and future area residents has not been determined.” The IG recommends that EPA take action to determine whether imminent and substantial endangerment still exists in the area—because it might—and to ensure water quality testing is done according to EPA standards.

Despite all the evidence in this case, in March 2012 EPA withdrew its emergency order and its enforcement action. In February, 2013, NRDC sent a letter to the EPA, expressing our concern about reports that underground sources of drinking water in Parker County appeared to remain contaminated and may still pose imminent and substantial endangerment to public health. Our letter went on to summarize the evidence that the Range natural gas well was “the most likely source of methane” in the domestic water wells, and concluded that there is no evidence that any of EPA’s prescriptions for addressing the endangerment have been fully complied with. We haven’t yet received a response from EPA.

The IG report also examined EPA’s withdrawal from the case. Some of its key findings on that topic:

  • Senior officials from EPA and a senior attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice agreed that there was enough evidence to enforce the EPA order through the courts. EPA, however, also apparently at the same time told the IG that it believed “its prospects in this case were uncertain” and, because they would have to gather additional evidence, it “was not an efficient use of agency resources.”
  • EPA apparently stated that, because a homeowner with contaminated water could afford to purchase water from an alternative source, the risks had lessened.
  • Range Resources agreed to participate in EPA’s research study on the impacts of fracking on drinking water “once the EPA withdrew the order.” Although Range made this commitment in March 2012, Range has apparently not yet agreed to allow EPA access to its facilities or provide information to EPA.  
  • The IG found that EPA’s withdrawal from the case did not violate any regulations or policy.

While EPA may have been within its legal bounds, NRDC is very concerned that EPA chose to step away from enforcing the law when drinking water was unsafe, scientific evidence pointed to the natural gas well, and senior agency officials believed they had a solid legal case. There's no justifiable reason in this report for why EPA stepped away and, as the IG has confirmed, EPA has never determined the overall risk to area residents--including whether the water of other families has been contaminated. The financial means of a victim should never be the standard for deciding when to hold a company responsible for violating the law. And drinking water quality should never be traded for a hollow promise that may never be fulfilled.

EPA should reopen its investigation and follow up on all of the IG’s recommendations without haste. It also needs to re-open other similar cases where it has inexplicably withdrawn in Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

Troubling Trend at EPA

As we’ve said before, this case in Texas is part of a larger, troubling trend we’re seeing of EPA failing to act on science in controversial fracking-related cases across the country. Instead, the agency appears to be systematically pulling back from high-profile fracking investigations.

Pennsylvania: In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection determined that shoddy practices by Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation had resulted in methane contamination of a large aquifer in Dimock, polluting the drinking water of 19 families. Concerned about the state’s spotty enforcement, NRDC, on behalf of the Dimock residents, asked EPA to step in and launch its own investigation. When EPA released the results of its investigation, effectively declaring Dimock’s water safe, it failed to share two important pieces of information. First, it did not share that Cabot had contaminated the water with dangerously high levels of methane. Second, it did not include methane in  its discussion to whether certain federal standards for specific contaminants were exceeded. Leaked documents from EPA earlier this year suggest that EPA basically declared that Dimock residents’ water was okay to drink despite the fact that some of its own staff believed that it showed serious contamination, possibly from fracking, that was likely to persist for a long time. 

Wyoming: A high-profile drinking water contamination case in Pavillion, Wyoming is another example of EPA backpedalling. EPA’s draft report on the Pavillion case revealed groundwater contamination and found that "the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing.". Even though a separate U.S. Geologic Survey provided a consistent assessment, EPA’s report was followed by fierce pushback from the oil and gas industry. Just like with Parker County, EPA made an equally abrupt and unexplained announcement last June that it was abandoning its investigation, it would not finalize its report, and instead would leave matters back in the hands of Wyoming regulators. As in Parker County and Dimock, inaction by state regulators is the reason EPA stepped in to begin with – because the states had not given adequate attention to residents’ drinking water complaints in the first place.

Implications for EPA’s Ongoing Fracking Study

This trend also raises concerns about the agency’s commitment thorough investigation in its national study on the risks fracking presents to drinking water. Stakeholder meetings with EPA give us reason to believe that the scope of the study they are pursuing may be too narrow to fully assess the risks fracking poses to drinking water supplies. As my colleague Briana Mordick recently wrote: “To date, a comprehensive and independent study of the potential risks of hydraulic fracturing to drinking water supplies does not exist. This EPA study has the potential to be just that, and help fill this critical knowledge gap. In order for that to happen, though, this must be conducted using the highest scientific standards. It is essential that EPA fulfill its own stated intent “to better understand any potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and ground water.” Fulfilling this goal of creating a comprehensive study is crucial to ensuring the public that all risks have been examined.

EPA has an obligation to enforce the law and step in where there is evidence that the domestic water from an underground drinking water source may pose imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the relevant state agency has not sufficiently addressed the potential endangerment. To do anything less risks the confidence of communities nationwide that are faced with oil and gas production operations within residential areas and near sources of drinking water. Communities must know that EPA will take action to thoroughly investigate and protect them from harms inflicted by the oil and gas industry.