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Years after well explosion, Texas family still waiting for answers from agency

A North Texas family is still waiting for answers about whether nearby gas production caused their water well to explode and why the Railroad Commission seemed to miss early signs that something like this could happen in their community.

Ashley and Cody Murray, ranchers in Palo Pinto County, pose with their two children. They allege nearby gas drilling caused methane to leak into their water well before it exploded, severely burning the couple, their four-year-old daughter and Cody's father. Their legal case could put pressure on Texas regulators.

More than two and a half years have passed since Cody and Ashley Murray’s water well exploded, transforming their Palo Pinto County ranch into an emergency scene.

With their burns healed and gone to scars, the couple and their two young children have since returned to their 160 acres outside of Perrin, about 60 miles northwest of Fort Worth.

The Murrays still lack a trusted source of local drinking water. And they're still waiting for answers about whether nearby gas production was to blame for the fireball that shot toward Cody’s face that August day — and why the Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, seemed to miss signs warning that something like that could happen in their cattle-and-pumpjack-sprinkled slice of the Barnett Shale. 

Outside experts have linked the explosion to nearby gas drilling. The Railroad Commission won’t comment on details of its investigation, other to confirm that it remains open.

“There is nothing new to report at this time,” spokeswoman Ramona Nye told The Texas Tribune. “The Commission takes this and every incident we investigate very seriously.”

The blast was caused by a buildup of methane gas in the water well that caused enough pressure to send water spraying in the family's pump house. Ashley Murray turned off the well pump and asked her husband to investigate, and when he turned it back on, the gas exploded, severely burning Cody, his father Jim; and Alyssa, Cody’s 4-year-old daughter.

Cody Murray took the brunt of the flames; with burns on his arms, upper back, neck, forehead and nose, the former oilfield worker spent a week in a burn unit. 

The Murrays sued two nearby drillers in 2015. After Houston-based EOG Resources settled, the Murrays' attorneys have turned their attention to Fairway Resources, a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs, claiming the company's well was the source of the gas that ignited.

The Murrays are seeking more than $1 million in damages in the lawsuit, now in a Tarrant County district court. Their attorneys would not make family members available for interviews. 

Matthew Eagleston, president and CEO of Fairway Resources, declined to comment, citing company policy. Fairway’s attorneys did not respond to interview requests.

In a January court filing, four experts hired by the Murrays' attorneys said the wayward methane — along with chemicals from drilling mud — escaped a poorly-sealed Fairway gas well and meandered through underground fractures into the Murrays’ pump house.

The company drilled its JT Cook #2 well in 2013, and a month later the Singletons, who live a quarter mile down the road from the Murrays and have joined them in the lawsuit, told the Railroad Commission their faucets were spouting cloudy water. The explosion at the Murrays' property happened 10 months after Fairway drilled the gas well, which sits less than 900 feet from the Singletons' water well and roughly 2,000 from the Murrays' pump house. 

An EnergyWire investigation published in June first highlighted gaps in the Railroad Commission’s probe, and raised questions about how closely the agency scrutinized the Singletons' initial complaints. Railroad Commission inspectors at the time quickly ruled out energy production as a factor in the Singletons' water problems, but testing from other agencies contradicted the commission’s findings.

Christopher Hamilton, the Murrays' attorney, acknowledges the difficulty of proving that oil and gas activities — let alone a specific well — polluted a water well hundreds of feet away. But he views this case, expected to go to trial in October, as “open-and-shut.”

“It’s really incontrovertible,” Hamilton said of the evidence he’s collected. “Sometimes the science just overwhelms.”

His hired experts include: Thomas Darrah, a geochemist at Ohio State University; Franklin Schwartz, an Ohio State University hydrologist; Zacariah Hildenbrand, chief scientific officer at Inform Environmental; and Anthony Ingraffea, a civil engineering professor at a Cornell University with expertise in hydraulic fracturing.

Ingraffea wrote of at least three likely pathways for gas to escape Fairway’s well, which he said was constructed with “bare-bones” protections and operated carelessly. The well also violated commission standards, Ingraffea wrote, notably because it lacked a Bradenhead gauge, a device that could monitor pressure and help detect leaks.

Darrah, who compared gases found in local water wells to Fairway’s gas, concluded: “The JT Cook #2 oil and gas well displays a geochemical match to samples of groundwater in the Singleton's and Murray's water wells in all of the measured data.”

Hildenbrand's analysis linked a drilling mud additive found in the Murrays' water — called Chem Seal — to Fairway's drilling. 

And Schwartz found fault with a Railroad Commission analysis that ruled out the Barnett Shale as a source for the Murrays' methane and said it wasn't clear whether the gas could have escaped from a shallower rock formation. The commission's experts, Schwartz said, failed to account for “physical, chemical and isotopic processes” that alter gas underground. 

The Commission declined to answer specific questions about its investigation into the explosion. 

“As with any incident, our technical experts base their work on the appropriate science and data necessary to complete a thorough and comprehensive investigation,” Nye said.   

Rebecca Norris, who lives just west of the Murrays, doesn’t expect the commission to do much of anything.

“Oh yeah, right,” the 66-year-old retiree responded after a reporter told her that the commission was still investigating.

In September 2015, the Tribune reported that Norris, who said can see a handful of gas wells from her bedroom window, never heard back after telling the commission that her water was turning everything — the sinks, the tub — orange. Nye promised at the time to find out why her agency never followed up. 

Eighteen months later, Norris said orange “crud” still settles around the bottom of drinking glasses. She said she's the only one in her house who can stomach the water, and her grown daughter and son “won’t even go near it,” when they visit. “They say it tastes terrible,” Norris said.

Norris said the Railroad Commission still hasn’t called. Nye said this week she was looking into it. 

“I feel like they’re not doing their job,” Norris said. “You think: ‘Why are they not following through on what they said they’d do?’"

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