The tussle between Texas and federal environmental regulators is heating up in yet another arena: natural gas drilling.
The Environmental Protection Agency, invoking a special "endangerment order" under the Safe Drinking Water Act, today ordered a natural gas drilling company, Range Resources, to provide clean drinking water and other assistance to two North Texas homes whose wells, the agency said, had been contaminated with methane and benzene to the point of being at risk of an explosion.
"EPA has determined that natural gas drilling near the homes by Range Resources in Parker County, Texas, has caused or contributed to the contamination of at least two residential drinking water wells," the agency said in a release. Residents had complained to the EPA about "flammable and bubbling drinking water coming out of their tap."
Al Armendariz, the EPA administrator for the region that includes Texas, was more explicit in comments to the Dallas Morning News: "I believe I've got two people whose houses could explode. So we've got to move."
Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Fort Worth-based Range Resources, told the Associated Press that the wells' problems did not stem from his company's activities: "We believe that the methane in the water has absolutely no connection to our operations in the area."
Armendariz effectively stepped in above the Texas Railroad Commission, which had been looking into the incident but so far had not acted. Concerns raised by one homeowner "were not adequately addressed by the State or the company," the EPA said.
In a release this evening, the Railroad Commission fired back. Victor Carrillo, the commission's outgoing chairman, called the EPA's actions "premature," because a Railroad Commission investigation, which began in August, is ongoing.
The two other commissioners jumped in too. "This is Washington politics of the worst kind," said Commissioner Michael Williams, sounding a note familiar in ongoing Texas-EPA sparring matches over air-pollution permitting. "The EPA's act is nothing more than grandstanding in an effort to interject the federal government into Texas business."
Elizabeth Ames Jones, the third commissioner, also descried the EPA move as "premature," and denounced "false claims made against our investigative actions by the EPA staff."