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Environmental Enforcement: Dept of Justice Sues Texas Driller to Enforce EPA Order

The United States Department of Justice filed a complaint  on Tuesday against a Texas oil company in federal district court, seeking enforcement of a Dec. 7, 2010, emergency order issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency against two related oil drilling companies.

In the order, the EPA determined that Range Production Company and Range Resources Corporation had caused or contributed to benzene and methane contamination of a drinking water aquifer in Parker County, Texas. The complaint asks the U.S. District Court in Dallas to direct the companies to comply with portions of the order and to pay a civil penalty of up to $16,500 per day of violation.

EPA issued the order following an investigation into complaints from residents about methane contamination in their private drinking water wells. According to allegations in the complaint, testing confirmed the presence of methane gas and the presence of other contaminants, including benzene, a known human carcinogen, in the well water

According to EPA, area residents noticed problems with their private drinking water wells soon after Range completed drilling and well stimulation operations on two natural gas wells located near the residents’ wells. During the course of EPA’s the agency determined that the risk of explosion warranted the issuance of an emergency order.

The agency noted that aside from offering drinking water to two affected residences and installing explosivity meters in their homes after issuance of the emergency order, the company has failed to comply with requirements of the order. These compel the company to conduct surveys of private and public water wells in the vicinity, submit plans for field testing, and submit plans to study how the methane and other contaminants may have migrated from the production wells, as well as write plans to remediate affected portions of the aquifer.

But Range denies that its gas wells are to blame for contamination in local drinking water.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the company disputed the validity of EPA’s order before the Texas Railroad Commission in Austin, which is also investigating the cause of contamination.

According to the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, consultants for the company presented  evidence that the contamination did not come from Range Resources’ natural gas wells drilled into the Barnett Shale, but instead from the much-shallower Strawn formation.

EPA officials did not attend the hearing despite the commission’s invitation, according to commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye.

However, agency officials told the Dallas Morning News their order remains in effect regardless of any actions by the commission.

David Poole, Range’s general counsel, said Range plans to appeal the EPA order no later than today in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Range had previously challenged the EPA’s order in a related case in federal court that seeks a determination of whether the agency’s investigation was thorough enough to warrant its emergency order.  On Tuesday, Range was granted the right to take the deposition of the EPA official most knowledgeable about the contamination investigation, the Fort Worth Star Telegram reports.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel said during Tuesday’s hearing that investigations by the Texas Railroad Commission and EPA are “of extreme significance” and have national implications.

“I think we’re dealing with parallel proceedings here (of the EPA and Railroad Commission) that are of extreme significance and will be significant around the country, based on the amount of publicity that (natural) gas and groundwater is getting in virtually every publication and every media outlet that there is,” Yeakel said, adding that “this has become a hot-button issue in the country.”

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