FORT WORTH, Texas - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it has found evidence that gas drilling activities in Texas either caused or contributed to contamination of domestic water wells.
According to a statement issued late Tuesday, the agency "has ordered a natural gas company in Fort Worth ... to take immediate action to protect homeowners living near one of their drilling operations."
The homeowners, according to the EPA, "have complained about flammable and bubbling drinking water coming out of their tap."
The company, Range Resources Corp., on Wednesday denied that their drilling activities had contaminated local water wells, arguing that their gas drilling work is aimed at the Barnett Shale formation, "which is over a mile below the water zone."
Tests of the water wells showed "extremely high levels of methane" which "pose an imminent and substantial risk of explosion or fire," according to the EPA.
The tests also revealed "other contaminants, including benzene, which can cause cancer, in their drinking water," the EPA stated.
Benzene is one of the substances often found in solutions used in hydraulic fracturing, or "frac'ing," which involves the injection of millions of gallons of water, along with sand and chemical agents, to break up deep rock formations and allow oil or gas to flow more freely to the surface.
The EPA's announcement conflicts with numerous statements by oil and gas industry officials, who have said repeatedly that there has never been conclusive evidence that their activities pose a hazard to domestic wells or underground reserves of drinking water.
Donna Gray, a spokesperson for Williams Production, a gas drilling company working both in Texas and in Garfield County, said the company would not comment on the matter on Wednesday.
But, she remarked, "Industry has maintained there has been no contamination of domestic water wells by frac'ing fluid, but not drilling."
She said the industry acknowledges that there have been isolated instances when gas wells have contaminated nearby water sources.
One such example, she said, was the Dietrich family's water well, located on land south of Silt, which was found to be contaminated by nearby drilling activities in 2004.
A separate instance of gas drilling activities polluting local waterways was the Divide Creek Seep case, also in 2004, when chemicals from the gas drilling process was found seeping into the creek. That case lead to a fine of $371,000 levied against the EnCana gas company by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Another industry spokesman, David Ludlam of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association in Grand Junction, indicated skepticism about the EPA's findings.
His association, he wrote in an email, "can't specifically comment on political grandstanding that occurs in other states or basins. Instead, our organization is committed to working within our own region to continually improve operations and communicate the importance of producing Western Colorado's natural gas reserves responsibly, and safely."