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Three weeks before Christmas, the U.S. EPA issued an emergency order to protect families in southern Parker County, Texas, west of Fort Worth in the Barnett Shale gas field. Two residents living near gas wells had flammable, fizzy and bubbling water (video) and EPA testing determined that nearby Range Resources wells had either caused or contributed to the contamination. The order said: EPA testing has confirmed that extremely high levels of methane in their water pose an imminent and substantial risk of explosion or fire.

For four months prior, the Texas Railroad Commission knew of the situation but hemmed and hawed, testing and retesting but failing to take any action. Yet when EPA stepped in, Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones called the action premature. Commissioner Michael Williams said EPA’s action was nothing more than grandstanding in an effort to interject the federal government into Texas business. Only in Texas where citizens are held prisoners to the cry of states rights by our Kabuki governor who regularly demonizes the EPA and who never met a polluter he didn t like could an action to protect citizens be called political grandstanding by a professional political grandstander.

The EPA’s action is generating much scurrying about by industry and industry apologists looking for anything to blame — anything, that is, but drilling and fracking. Their quest for a scapegoat is producing some useful information.

An article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram quoted Jack Watts, a veteran water well driller in Parker County, saying that in 30 years he has found methane in water wells probably 15 to 20 times. Several other sources noted the possibility of unplugged and abandoned gas wells as a source for the contamination. Another veteran water well driller, Larry Bisidas, frequently voices his concerns about water quality changes since the increase in Barnett Shale drilling. In a recent article, Unwell Water, Bisidas revealed that his own water wells are now contaminated.

“It wasn’t until they drilled a gas well across from my home that they went bad. I’ve been having to haul in drinking water. That’s pretty bad when the well man is buying bottled water.”

We should be clear that methane was not the only contaminant found in the Parker County water wells. The EPA order lists the others as benzene, toluene, ethane, propane and hexane. These are wells that provide drinking water for nine people including children. The EPA order also notes that neither of the contaminated wells had problems prior to the drilling and fracking of the nearby Range Resources gas wells:

Neither the consumer, nor the well drilling service, observed or reported that the water from Domestic Well 1 contained any noticeable natural gas at the time of its drilling. In late December 2009, approximately four months after the Gas Wells began producing gas, the owner of Domestic Well 1 first noticed that the water had begun to effervesce.

. . .

Neither the consumer nor the well drilling service, observed or reported that the water from Domestic Well 2 contained any noticeable natural gas at the time of its drilling. In May 2010, the owner of Domestic Well 2 first noticed that the water had begun to effervesce.

The pattern repeats itself: drilling and fracking occurs and water is contaminated. Yet the industry continues to claim there are no recorded cases of contamination and it is impossible that fracking could contaminate water.

The Star-Telegram article contradicts itself, in the same sentence by calling the Powell Barnett Shale newsletter unabashedly pro-industry and an authoritative source on gas drilling. Despite the evidence cited in the EPA order, the Powell newsletter claims its own analysis shows that the gas in the water wells is from a shallow area. Rather than consider any investigation into the fracking process, the newsletter recommends testing all area wells and plugging the ones that have gas.

The two veteran well drillers, Watts and Bisidas, are in agreement that drilling and fracking is having an impact on our water.

While the problem is a long-standing one, Watts said, the Barnett Shale Drilling of recent years could be exacerbating the situation. “It’s been worse in the last few years as more wells are drilled,” he said.

If houses shake when fracking occurs in the vicinity, common sense dictates that something profound is happening in the geology below. Still, the industry claims fracking is so deep it can’t possibly have an effect on our water.

There are many things we don’t know about fracking and its effects on the geological formations:

Why are there bubbles that catch fire in a pasture in Wise County?
Why does water suddenly have drilling mud and contaminants in it?
What are these weird science experiments with Bartonville water?

What landowners know is that where drilling and fracking happens, water gets polluted. What Texans know is that state regulators are industry lapdogs not watchdogs. Since Texas has no regulation specific to hydraulic fracturing, the Railroad Commission should stand aside when EPA steps in to do its job protecting public health and safety.

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