By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI, Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday it is no longer requiring a gas driller it had accused of contaminating private wells to provide water to two North Texas families.
The EPA submitted the withdrawal to the court in Texas on Thursday, not long after Judge Trey Loftin concluded residents in Parker County had collaborated with an environmental consultant to falsify video showing how their water — supposedly contaminated with methane — could be ignited.
It remains unclear whether the judge's ruling in January influenced the EPA to withdraw its order against Fort Worth, Texas-based Range Resources. But the agency said in a statement this move allows the focus to move "away from litigation and toward a joint effort on the science and safety of energy extraction." Range has agreed to conduct periodic testing at 20 area water wells.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas drilling, and Range Resources have long insisted drilling did not cause the water contamination.
The EPA and some Parker County residents had argued fracking had contaminated the water with benzene, methane and other toxic gases. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a drilling method used to extract oil and natural gas embedded in impermeable layers of rock. The process involves pumping chemical-laced water at a high pressure into the ground to release once out-of-reach gas and oil.
The method has allowed drillers to extract gas and oil from shale formations nationwide — and even globally — but has been accompanied by concern that it is not environmentally safe.
In northeastern Pennsylvania, the EPA announced earlier this month that testing of water wells had failed to show evidence of contamination. The agency had been delivering water to three of the 11 homes in Dimock, Pa., where residents accuse drillers of contaminating their water. Dimock has been at the center of fierce debate over the environmental impact of drilling in the Marcellus shale.
Range Resources and the Texas Railroad Commission both argued the aquifer in Parker County has always been laced with naturally occurring methane.
"We are very pleased to see that the EPA's order has been withdrawn," Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella said. "It's important for people to know that their environment, health and safety is protected and hopefully this provides them with that comfort."
Pitzarella declined to say whether the January ruling was what sparked negotiations with the EPA. "We believe that the fact that they're withdrawing this order speaks volumes," he said.
The Railroad Commission also welcomed the EPA's decision.
The agency is "guilty of fear mongering, gross negligence and severe mishandling of this case," Commissioner David Porter said in a statement.
Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com//RamitMastiAP
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.