When I pulled into Ray Kemble’s driveway in Dimock Pennsylvania, the first thing I noticed was the stadium lights shining from the gas pad across the street. They were blaring brightly in the middle of the day and pointed directly at Ray’s house. I thought it must be a mistake, but Ray assured me it wasn’t. He explained the lights had been on and aimed at his house 24/7 for almost a year. That night I saw how you could read a book in Ray’s front yard, the lights were so bright and the generator noise was an insidious low rumble that permeated the house, heard even the bedrooms. All day and all night, the light and noise never stopped.
Cabot Oil and Gas owns the well pad, 500 feet from Ray’s front door. It’s been under repair for three years, and is one of the gas wells that contaminated the aquifer that feeds the water wells in Ray’s neighborhood. Cabot refused to answer why they aimed the lights at Ray’s house, but the reason is obvious to Ray; intimidation. Ray Kemble was one of 18 victims whose water wells were contaminated by the unconventional gas extraction technique known as hydro-fracturing or fracking. Ray is the only victim to successfully refuse to sign Cabot’s silence agreement as part of a settlement. Ray is still able to speak to the press, while his neighbors have been completely silenced, unable to even say “Cabot” in public. Ray is very vocal about what happened to his neighborhood when the fracking boom moved in, the aquifer became polluted and victims had to wage a long war against a powerful corporation to get justice. Justice Ray says is still slow in coming to his house.
Santa Cruz County was the first in California to ban fracking. In May of last year, our Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban the highly controversial fossil fuel extraction method. It’s a testament to the care Santa Cruz residents have for their environment, and a display of visionary thinking similar to the ban the county passed in 1980 that kept offshore drilling away from our beaches—a decision we are deeply grateful for today as we look down the coast to the destruction the recent 100,000-gallon oil spill has wrought on the beaches of Santa Barbara.
I was in Dimock, the heart of the shale gas fracking boom, when Santa Cruz County passed the fracking ban last May. News of the ban was a great encouragement to activists and water contamination victims like Ray Kemble who live around Dimock, the site of the largest known fracking-related water contamination case in the nation. Eighteen families settled a class action lawsuit against Cabot Gas and Oil when it was proven that drilling and shale gas fracking polluted the aquifer beneath their homes.
I had the opportunity to meet many of these families when my small, nonprofit media group, AK Productions, sent me out to research the fracking boom, its many victims, and the politics behind it all. The results will be released this fall in our upcoming film: "Fracking America: The Politics of the Fracking Boom." Spoiler alert: the fossil fuel industry along with much of the government and media are working together to hide the damage fracking has done to people and the environment--until the infrastructure for a fossil-fuel future is in place.
Many have called the fracking boom an energy renaissance; “The American energy renaissance that is beginning before our eyes can help save us from the Obama economy.” Senator Ted Cruz recently claimed as he launched his new legislation: “The American Energy Renaissance Act” which opposes federal regulation of fracking, calls for more offshore drilling and opens the door for oil exports now illegal. And it is true that use of this unconventional extraction technique has led to a surge in fossil fuel production, a drop in gas prices and a renewed hope in fossil fuel energy independence. Shale gas production has grown 51 percent per year since 2007 and proven reserves have increased five-fold since then, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The United States is now the world’s largest natural gas producer because of shale gas fracking.
New technology reviving an old practice has made this renaissance possible. Most of us know it by the term “fracking” which is short for hydraulic fracturing. It is the practice of injecting millions of gallons of fluid under high pressure into gas and oil wells to stimulate production rates. The practice dates back to 1865 when the first patent was issued on a torpedo that could be lowered into oil wells and once detonated increased oil flow by up to 1,200 percent. In the 1940’s the torpedo was replaced by nitroglycerin and later acid. In the 1940’s the hydraulic component was added, using high pressure to release hydrocarbons. In 1949 Halliburton successfully used the technique in two separate experiments. By the 1960’s hydraulically fracturing was commercialized and popular for raising production rates in oil wells and coal beds.
This long history is why many claim the technology has been around for over sixty years. What hasn’t been around that long is horizontal drilling. In the late 1990’s we began to perfect the practice of turning the drill bit sideways and drilling horizontal wells that cut through the heart of shale deposits. These horizontal wells now typically run two to five miles underground. We also perfected the use of chemicals, sand and small explosions under very high pressures to break open shale or oil bearing formations allowing more production.
Today’s fracking generally involves thousands of gallons of chemicals, many undisclosed, tons of silica sand, a truck full of hydrochloric acid and up to a dozen 1,800 horsepower diesel engines to push the fluid into the horizontal well at very high pressure. It also involves the disposal of millions of gallons of chemical laden waste water after it returns to the surface. The fracking of today is like the fracking of the 1960’s in about the same way a rotary phone is similar to the iPhone of today.
Yet the claim that we have fracked a million wells and have not seen one case of water contamination is been often repeated. “There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing. Not one,” said Rex W. Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil during congressional testimony. Senator James Inhofe echoed the claim, “Since 1949, my state of Oklahoma has led the way on hydraulic fracturing regulations, and just like the rest of the nation, we have yet to see an instance of ground water contamination.” It’s a tricky game of semantics, the known cases of water contamination related to the fracking boom number in the hundreds.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection documented 243 cases of shale extraction related water contamination occurring between 2008 and 2012 as Pennsylvania amped up it’s number of shale gas wells. The Associated Press uncovered 6 cases in Ohio, 4 in West Virginia. Though Texas saw 62 complaints from citizens about drilling and fracking related water contamination, Texas has yet to confirm one case. The irony there is the EPA issued an Emergency Order in Parker County Texas in 2010 after isotopic testing matched the explosive amounts of gas in a residents water well to production gas from a nearby fracked gas well. But state regulators, whose campaign coffers are filled by the gas and oil industry threw out the EPA’s testing and ruled the contamination was naturally occurring, a common industry claim. It turns out the 92% gas coming out of the water well’s headspace is virtually impossible with naturally occurring methane. Yet after 5 years, Texas regulators are sticking to their story.
My research trip started last year with a one-way ticket to Texas on April Fools Day. I flew in to interview the owner of that water well in Parker county, one the most highly contaminated water wells in the country. Since drilling and fracking occurred near their home five years ago, the Lipsky family has enough gas coming from their water well to light a four-foot flame from their water well vent. Texas politics has kept the story quiet and prevented the family from getting help from the courts, Texas regulators or the federal government.
Twenty minutes after I was on the ground in Texas, I heard my first story of fracking contamination from a native Texan running the airport taxi stand. He’d been a water truck driver for the gas industry. In hushed tones he told me how one night it was raining hard and his truck was full of flow back--a fracking waste product laced with chemicals and radiation. Because his boss had no other way to dispose of it that particular night, he told this guy to drive to the edge of the work site, open the spigot and release the toxic water. The guy said he argued a bit, but realized he had no choice except walking off the job. He positioned the truck, opened the valve and watched the gray, smelly water flow down the hillside into a nearby creek.
He had the eyes of a man confessing murder as he told me the story. He said he felt terrible about it, he knew it was wrong. He said he thought about his paycheck and how it wasn't worth it and how he hoped he hadn't hurt anything. He hoped it was raining so hard there wouldn't be any damage. He also told me to remember that every time it rains heavy, a truck somewhere is likely dumping toxic fracking related waste. Rain is the perfect cover.
As my taxi sped off I thought: this trip is going to be a hell of a ride. I was right. All the research I’d done on the Lipsky’s case didn't prepare me for the heartbreaking effect living with water contamination has on a family. Steve Lipsky and his wife Shyla have three darling young kids. During the summer of 2010, Steve told me, they had unknowingly fed them benzene-laced snow cones before they realized their water was contaminated. That knowledge would weigh heavily on any parent, but it's only the beginning of the trials the polluted water well has brought this family over the past five years.
In the summer of 2010, the family noticed their water was effervescing like alka selzer and had a strange smell. Then their well pump failed. They soon found out their water well, which had been working fine for years, was chock-full of methane gas. Very high, very explosive amounts of methane gas.
Steve ordered private testing and started calling every agency he could think of that might be able to help, including the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees gas and oil development in Texas, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. When private testing found high levels of benzene and explosive levels of methane gas over national standards, Steve thought government agencies would help figure out how it got there and remedy the problem. He was wrong. Instead, he got caught up in an old war between Texas regulators and the federal EPA.
When the Texas Railroad Commission was slow to act—finding unsafe levels of benzene in the water well in August of 2010, but taking no action--the EPA stepped in. They did highly accurate isotopic testing which is similar to human fingerprinting. The results matched the gas in the Lipsky’s water to a nearby shale gas well owned by Range Resources. In December of 2010, the EPA issued an Emergency Order against Range, forcing them to stop production from the well, find the reason for the contamination, and provide the family with clean drinking water.
The day after the EPA Order was issued, the Texas Railroad Commission called a hearing on the case. The Railroad Commission was up in arms about the EPA order, calling it "the worst kind of politics." Texas regulators despise the EPA. Only Texans can regulate Texas is their (not) humble opinion. In a move that heavily favored Range Resources and their well-paid army of lawyers, the Railroad Commission set the hearing for just four weeks away. Because of the Christmas holiday, the Lipksys’ had only fifteen working days to prepare a case against a billion-dollar corporation hell bent on proving that the EPA's isotopic testing was wrong and that they had nothing to do with the methane contamination.
By that time, a neighbor's well had also become contaminated, and since that time a number of other area wells have also become polluted with methane. Little did the Lipskys’ know then that no matter how much evidence accumulated pointing to Range’s gas well as the culprit, the Railroad Commission would never admit a link between fracking and water contamination. To do so would challenge a central oil industry claim: there has never been a confirmed case of water contamination related to fracking.
As expected, the Railroad Commission ruled that the contamination was naturally occurring and that Range was not responsible. They threw out the EPA's isotopic testing, ignored the benzene and told the Lipksys that if they simply vented all that methane gas and benzene into the air the well would be fine.
Failed by his state regulators, Steve sued Range Resources. The EPA also sued Range to force them to comply with the EPA's Emergency Order. Neither lawsuit succeeded. Steve's suit was thrown out by a local judge, claiming Lipskys had filed in the wrong jurisdiction and had missed the deadline to file in the right one. After eighteen months, the EPA decided it didn't have the resources to continue litigating against Range and retreated to Washington.
In a Texas-sized twist, Range Resources counter-sued the Lipksys’ for $3 million dollars. Range claimed the Lipskys' conspired to alert the EPA, that they faked a video of the flaming water, and that Steve had defamed Range's good name. Trey Loftin, the same Texas judge who had thrown out Steve's case, rubber-stamped Range’s evidence and allowed Range's case to proceed. Loftin later used his ruling in a campaign mailer endorsed by Rush Limbaugh, claiming he had foiled the EPA and uncovered a serious environmentalist conspiracy. He was forced to recuse himself and lost his re-election race, but the damage was done.
Earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court threw out the conspiracy charge, finding there was no evidence for the accusations, but they allowed Range's defamation and business disparagement charges against Steve Lipsky to continue. The charges are almost laughable:
- Steve Lipsky said Range’s drilling went under the Lipsky’s house while omitting that Range’s wellbore was over a mile below the surface.
- The Lipskys said they found unnatural detergents in the water.
- The Lipskys claimed they could not live in their home (although they continued to do so).
- Steve Lipsky claimed Range would eventually “own” the Lipsky’s home (which implied that Range was responsible for contaminating the Lipsky’s water source and would be liable for doing so).
- The Lipskys could literally light their water on fire, and the water was unsafe to drink.
The Lipsky's water is unsafe to drink and the copious amounts of gas in their water do light on fire. The EPA found Range Resources responsible and a series of independent tests have found numerous toxins in the Lipksy’s water. The Lipsky’s home is uninhabitable as long as their water well is hooked up, they’ve been paying to ship in clean water for nearly five years. Range's allegations are specious - yet after four years the million dollar lawsuit filed against Steve Lipsky by the corporation that polluted his water well continues, no matter how much evidence stacks up supporting the EPA’s original conclusions.
Duke, Stanford and three other universities conducted a peer-reviewed study that also linked the contamination in the Lipsky water well to nearby shale gas extraction. The study was published in the Proceedings of the the National Academy of Sciences in September of 2014 and studied more than 130 water wells, including the Lipsky’s. Rob Jackson, a professor of environmental and earth sciences at Stanford and one of the study’s authors told the Star-Telegram in an interview, “We know for certain that some people’s water has been contaminated with methane from oil and gas activities and that it is possible that it will grow. We saw homes go from clean to contaminated during the study and that is unique.”
More recently, a peer-reviewed study published in June by the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology found widespread gas and oil extraction related constituents in water wells in Parker and nearby counties. The study was done by University of Texas at Arlington and Inform Environmental LLC. Over a nine month period, 550 public and private water wells were sampled in North Texas’ Barnett Shale region. Results confirmed the presence of 19 different chemical compounds including highly carcinogenic BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylenes) and elevated levels of methanol and ethanol compounds, all of which are associated with fracking.
The Lipsky water well was also included in that study. Dr. Zacariah L. Hildenbrand, one of the study’s authors stated, “With the growing library of evidence in Mr Lipsky's case, it is becoming increasingly less likely that his groundwater has been affected by a natural process. The EPA, alongside independent scientists like Geoffrey Thyne, has found that the gas in Steve's water is a compositional and isotopic match with the gas being extracted from a nearby gas well. This is analogous to finding a matching finger print. Then when you couple that with the fact that we have detected drilling-related chemicals in his water, it's a very compelling case of drilling-related contamination.”
Also in June, the EPA released a draft of it’s five year study on the effects of fracking on the nation’s water supplies; Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources. While it did confirm cases of water contamination related to the fracking boom, the study found “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources”. This was translated by many to mean “fracking is safe” by the press and industry supporters. Heather Briccetti CEO of the New York State Business Council made this statement; “… the EPA has confirmed what top scientists have said all along, that fracking is safe and has no widespread impact on drinking water.”
Lamar Smith, Chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee made a similar statement; “As experts have testified before the Science Committee for years, there is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has caused ground water contamination.” In fact the EPA’s report did find cases of groundwater contamination, “[EPA] found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells.” In fact, of the (only) five cases the EPA examined, all five had some form of contamination related to the drilling and fracking process, from methane migrating into a water well to an impoundment leaking into a pond.
Although the EPA confirmed the Lipsky water well was contaminated by nearby fracking activities back in 2010, the Lipsky case was not used as evidence of fracking contaminating a water source for this report. In fact, none of the known, confirmed cases, like Dimock, were used in the EPA’s draft report. I asked the EPA how it found water contamination was not widespread, if it didn’t look at all known and confirmed cases? I received this reply, sent from an EPA iPhone: “The draft assessment was not designed to investigate every instance where questions have been raised about the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources—though we do conduct five case studies in areas where the public raised concerns. Rather, EPA set out to conduct a national study to determine whether there was potential for impacts to drinking water resources from hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, and if so, to identify the drivers for those impacts.” Don’t hundreds of actual contamination cases tell us a lot about the potential for contamination?
It’s possible gas and oil industry pressure had a lot to do with the results of the EPA’s draft report. DeSmog Blog, a website dedicated to “clearing the air of fossil fuel industry PR” reviewed over 3,000 pages of emails, confidential draft study plans and other internal documents acquired through an open records request. The review revealed ongoing and consistent tampering by industry including allowing energy company officials to edit planning documents, vetting agency contractors and demanding to review federal scientist's field notes, photographs and laboratory results prior to publication. Company officials also made it so hard for the EPA to comply with their demands that EPA ultimately dropped a key goal of the research, plans to measure pollution levels before and after fracking at two new well sites.
A 2004 EPA report on the effects of coal bed methane fracking suffered the same industry pressure and yielded similar results. It found, “no confirmed cases that are linked to fracturing fluid injection into coalbed methane wells or subsequent underground movement of fracturing fluids.” Yet a New York Times document review showed that not only was the EPA aware of just such a case from 1987 where fracturing gel had turned up in a families water well, EPA admitted that fracking had been the cause: “During the fracturing process, fractures can be produced, allowing migration of native brine, fracturing fluid and hydrocarbons from the oil or gas well to a nearby water well”. Has the EPA been covering up the truth about the dangers of fracking all this time? Wes Wilson, an EPA whistleblower said yes back in 2005 when he went public with his knowledge of industry pressure on the federal agency. Geoffery Thyne who lead the study of the Lipsky case for the 2010 EPA Order confirms EPA’s struggle to present solid science, “Both the EPA's 2004 and current study fall far short of what we should expect. The conclusions, which is all most people will ever hear, are not in line with the rest of the report. Buried in the hundreds of pages in each report are facts, and those facts document the environmental impacts associated with unconventional development.”
Ray Kemble would agree. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection found Cabot Gas and Oil responsible for the contamination of 18 Dimock water wells in 2009 and issued three Consent Orders requiring Cabot address the contamination. Yet the EPA declared the water wells contaminated by Cabot Gas & Oil safe to drink and use in 2012. The day after the EPA issued a press release on the safety of Dimock’s water, Ray got a letter from the EPA telling him his water was unsafe to drink. An internal EPA powerpoint presentation leaked to the LA Times in 2012 revealed continuing concern by officials about contamination and findings of high levels of methane, manganese and arsenic, most likely related to nearby gas extraction.
There remains a 9 mile drilling and fracking moratorium around Dimock. Local regulators say the methane levels haven't stabilized enough to allow more drilling. In 2012, DEP did allow the fracking of two gas wells that had been drilled before the moratorium was in place. Immediately after the fracking stimulation process occurred, there were new cases of contamination reported. Yet, in a nod to industry's interests, DEP claims none of the cases are related to the fracking process. Because no one seems able to call these regulators to the carpet for real answers, we may never know if fracking was the cause, no state testing has been done or will be done in those cases. Like many of his neighbors, Ray’s well is still polluted, full of gray green, petroleum smelling water and was recently found to contain diesel fuel. After 5 years, he’s still paying to ship in his own water and the EPA has stopped taking his calls.
I'm back in Texas as I write this, catching up with the Lipskys. Their family is hanging by a thread which seems to be unraveling. After five years of fighting Range Resources and the gas industry's army of lawyers and PR flacks, the tension is palpable. The EPA has failed them. The Texas Railroad Commission has failed them. Although there are now ten cases of contamination in the Lipsky’s neighborhood, the Railroad Commission still says the pollution can’t be attributed to shale gas extraction. Where can these families go for help? Nowhere.
Wherever fracking has taken hold, communities have become divided and families have been quietly ruined. No one ever hears about most of these cases because companies require victims sign silence agreements in order to get clean water. The nation may never know how many water wells have been contaminated by the fracking boom. Politicians, pundits and industry talking heads continue to claim fracking is not a threat to aquifers. With the public unaware of the dangers, the oil industry is busily installing enough natural gas infrastructure to ensure we remain on fossil fuels as long as possible--a hundred years, industry officials often brag.
While Santa Cruz County is safe, at least for now, from the perils of fracking, we are not safe from the climate warming effects our fossil fuel future promises to bring America.
Steve Lispky's water well was contaminated by gas and oil drilling in 2010. Fracknation, Range Resources and others call it Steve a fraud. WFAA channel 8 did excellent coverage of the story.
Steve's been fighting for help since 2010. The EPA found the gas in Steve's well matched production gas from a nearby Range Resources well and issued an Emergency Order against the company in 2010.
Range had a fit, sued Steve and got the EPA to back off. But the EPA IG looked into the case and found the EPA had done the right thing.
Even with the EPA's OIG's finding:
... Range Resources still maintains Steve conspired to deceive the public about his contaminated water well and Range's $3 million lawsuit against him is ongoing:
Please see more at:
All clips used for educational, non-profit use only. Much thanks to Brett Shipp and channel 8 news for their excellent coverage.