The EPA ordered Fort-Worth based Range Production Co. to take steps to protect the families and water supplies after the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates natural-gas drilling, failed to act, EPA Regional Administrator Al Amendariz said.
Railroad Commission officials “acknowledge that there is natural gas in the drinking water wells,” Armendariz said. “They want more data and believe that action now is premature. I believe I’ve got two people whose houses could explode. So we’ve got to move.”
The Railroad Commission and Range Production had not responded to Armendariz’s statements or the EPA’s order.
The EPA issued an imminent and substantial endangerment order under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act after inspections confirmed natural gas in the private drinking water wells that serve two homes in southern Parker County.
Range Production drilled horizontal gas wells into Parker County, near the two homes, from a drilling pad located nearby in Hood County, Railroad Commission records show.
The gas wells were drilled using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals is injected deep underground under high pressure. The pressure fractures the tight shale formation and releases trapped natural gas.
In the last five years, fracking has turned North Texas’ Barnett Shale field into the nation’s biggest natural gas area, with tens of thousands of wells drilled.
Critics say the practice endangers water supplies, citing examples of tapwater that can be set on fire by igniting the gas in the water. In response to such complaints, Congress ordered the EPA to conduct a nationwide study of fracking and water quality.
Industry officials and Texas regulators say fracking is safe because the chemically treated water is injected far below any usable drinking water. They say the gas in widely distributed flaming-water videos was not a result of fracking.
Armendariz said the EPA is not alleging that fracking caused the Parker County contamination, only that Range’s gas wound up in the drinking water.
Required casing and cement that line the gas well might have failed, letting gas escape into the aquifer, he said. It’s also possible that drilling struck a geological fault or an old gas well, he said.
The extent of contamination isn’t known. Range must identify the affected area under the EPA order.
“We know they’ve polluted the aquifer,” Armendariz said. “We know they’re getting natural gas in there. We don’t know yet how far it’s spread.”
The EPA instructed Range, among the nation’s largest gas-producing companies, to indicate within 24 hours whether it intends to comply with the order and to provide potable water to the two families within 48 hours.
It also must install meters in the homes to check for explosion risks.
Range also must survey the local aquifer and identify any other private wells that might be contaminated. Within 14 days, the company must submit a plan for checking the homes’ interior air and surrounding soil for natural gas.
Range has 60 days to tell the EPA how it will trace gas pathways through the ground, close those pathways, and clean up the aquifer.
One of the two affected homeowners declined to comment. The other could not be reached.