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Parker County water contamination case stokes debate over natural gas drilling

By ELIZABETH SOUDER / The Dallas Morning News
esouder@dallasnews.com

After federal regulators accused natural gas producer Range Resources Corp. of contaminating drinking water in Parker County, the anti-drilling crowd rallied.

Industry officials once again said it couldn't be true.
And the prospect of producing more natural gas, which burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels, dimmed.
"We've been telling the industry for some time that if they did not improve their practices, they were going to kill the goose that was laying the golden eggs," said Jim Marston, Texas regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

This year, several pipeline explosions and pollution concerns have led environmental and community groups to complain about natural gas drilling. The complaints led to restrictions on drilling.
This week's water incident only adds to the flames.

Earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency found that natural gas from Range's wells had seeped into a drinking-water aquifer, putting two homes at risk of explosion. The EPA ordered the Fort Worth company to protect the families and water supplies after the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates natural gas, failed to act.

Range denied Wednesday that the contamination came from its wells. The company repeated the same reassurances the industry has been giving neighbors all along: The contamination is natural, not man-made.

"Range's wells are completed in the Barnett Shale formation, which is over a mile below the water zone," the company said in a news release issued Wednesday. "The [Range] investigation has revealed that methane in the water aquifer existed long before our activity and likely is naturally occurring migration from several shallow gas zones immediately below the water aquifer."

Industry groups have long said the wells are drilled too deep to interfere with well water. Flaming faucets result from the natural seep of gas into the water supply, making it combustible, they say.
Marston from the Environmental Defense Fund said that explanation just makes the industry look like it doesn't care.

"They have positions that don't pass the laugh test," he said.
Marston, who would like to see the U.S. use more natural gas than other types of fossil fuels, said he's been pushing natural gas executives to commit to best practices and to accept some more regulations.
Range is one of the first companies to disclose the chemicals used to fracture natural gas wells. After drilling a well in shale, such as the Barnett Shale, the driller blasts the underground rock with water and chemicals to release gas.

Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said the company had already agreed to provide drinking water to the two families affected before the EPA ordered it to do so.
"This doesn't need to be, nor should it be, a 'he said,' or an argumentative or combative process. We just want to make sure we understand what's going on and it gets fixed, one way or another, even if it has nothing to do with us," he said.
Range has been working with the Railroad Commission, which hasn't decided what caused the contamination. Commissioners said in a news release late Tuesday that they don't appreciate meddling by federal regulators.

The commission's response casts the situation in light of federal and state politics. But consider the local political angle: The city of Dallas is considering drilling permits for city land. Raymond Crawford, a needlepoint pattern designer in Oak Cliff , has rallied neighbors to protest. On Wednesday, he updated his Facebook page with a link to a story about the Range incident.
His comment: "It's everywhere. Told ya so."

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