While filling a cattle trough 15 months ago, Ashley Murray noticed something odd occurring in the shack housing her family’s water pump. High-pressure water was spraying everywhere. She switched off the pump, went into the house and asked her husband to take a look. So out walked Cody Murray with his father Jim.

Ashley stood holding the couple’s four-year-old daughter just outside the wood-and-stone pump house. As Jim Murray flipped on the pump, it let out a “woosh.” Cody, a former oilfield worker, knew the sound signaled danger. He threw his dad backwards — just before a fireball shot from the wellhead and transformed the Murrays’ 160-acre Palo Pinto County ranch into an emergency scene. 

Somehow, everyone survived the explosion, detailed in legal filings. But the flames severely burned each of the four.

Now, as the Murrays continue their recovery, the family wants to hold someone accountable for the blast, sparked by a buildup of methane gas. They say blame lies with a pair of companies that drilled and operate two gas wells roughly 1,000 feet away from their water well.

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Those gas wells are among thousands that dot the Barnett Shale, which stretches some 5,000 square miles beneath at least 25 North Texas counties.

The wells drilled and operated by Houston-based EOG Resources and Fairway Resources, a partner of Goldman Sachs, “are the only possible sources of the contamination,” the Murrays allege in a lawsuit filed last month.

(Family members were not immediately available for interviews.)

“I have scientific testing showing that Mother Nature did not put this gas in the Murrays’ well,” said Christopher Hamilton, the family’s attorney, who called it “a landmark case in Texas.”

Through a spokeswoman, EOG Resources declined to comment on the litigation, citing company policy. Fairway Resources did not respond to messages left at its Southlake office. As of Tuesday, neither company had responded in court.

Scientifically proving the case, a difficult task, would put pressure on the state's oil and gas regulator — the Texas Railroad Commission — and could reboot an emotional debate about whether years of frenzied drilling in one of the country’s largest gas fields has put groundwater at risk.

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The agency has quietly investigated the Murrays' case over the past year, its records show.

The agency — which straddles the line between industry champion and watchdog — has not openly linked groundwater contamination to drilling activities, and it frequently repeats a refrain that it has not implicated hydraulic fracturing, in particular — the revolutionary method of blasting apart rock to free up gas.

“To be clear, Commission records do not indicate a single documented water contamination case associated with the process of hydraulic fracturing in Texas,” Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman, said in an email.

Lasts springthe agency effectively shut the door on a high-profile case dating back to 2010 — once reopened — concerning methane-tainted wells in Parker County. The last agency analysis said evidence was “insufficient” to determine whether the accused driller unlocked deep-resting Barnett gas, or if the methane naturally bubbled up from shallower depths. 

A few months later, five universities published peer-reviewed research concluding that oil and gas activities (but not fracking itself) tainted some of the same water wells in Parker County. High levels of methane escaped poorly constructed natural gas wells and migrated into shallow aquifers, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science paper said. Substandard cementing likely caused the problem, said the researchers, relying on a set of geochemical tracers different than what the Railroad Commission used.

The Parker County gases arrived in the aquifer without undergoing typical geologic changes, data showed, leading researchers to conclude that they came up through a pipe — likely part of a gas well — and didn’t interact with any water or rocks below the surface.

The commission panned that study and declined to reopen its investigation.

Hamilton, the lawyer for the Murrays, said his evidence points to cementing problems similar to what researchers at the five universities identified, implicating the energy companies.

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That analysis, he claims, comes from a team of highly recognized scientists who are working for free, save for travel costs.

“This is the first case I’ve ever had where none of my experts will accept compensation,” said Hamilton. “These guys won’t take any money because they’re totally in it for the science and they don’t want anyone to question their credibility.”

However, the attorney said he could not immediately reveal his data, or the names of his experts because of the discovery timeline in his lawsuit.

The family's complaint details the explosion's grizzly results, including several first and second degree burns for Cody, Jim and the child. With burns on his arms, upper back, neck forehead and nose, Cody spent a week in a hospital's intensive care and burn units. With his nerves damaged, the 38-year old cannot drive — because he can't grip a steering wheel — and cannot work, the document says. 

The Murrays are seeking more than $1 million in relief. 

So far, the Railroad Commission has documented high methane levels in the Murray well, and others nearby. One family’s well registered methane at more than five times the federal limit. But the data were “inconclusive with respect to specific migration pathways from shallower sources,” that analysis said.

Nye said the agency is looking at records for local oil and gas wells to make sure companies built them correctly. 

After examining the Railroad Commission water well analysis, Hugh Daigle, an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s department of petroleum and geosystems engineering, agreed that the data was inconclusive, and said it looked like the agency was on the right track in investigating the contamination.

“There’s a lot of different places that gas could be coming from,” he said. “They’re doing the right thing to try to figure this out.”

Meanwhile, water concerns extend beyond the Murray ranch.

Rebecca and Larry Norris, a couple living just west of the Murrays, said their water has been turning everything orange — the sinks, the tub — for the past few years, beginning around the time the drilling companies arrived.

They reported the problem to the Railroad Commission shortly after the explosion, but haven’t heard back — "not a peep," Rebecca, 65, said. (Nye said the agency was looking into why it may not have responded.)

In her house sitting near six wells, Rebecca, said, “you wonder, just wonder” what's in the water.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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