The EPA offered no public explanation for its change in thinking, and Lipsky said he and his family learned about it from a reporter. The agency refused to answer questions about the decision, instead issuing a statement by email that said resolving the Range Resources matter allowed the EPA to shift its ‘‘focus in this case away from litigation and toward a joint effort on the science and safety of energy extraction.’’
After the agency dropped its action, the company offered scientists access to a site in southwestern Pennsylvania. But the EPA has not yet accepted the offer.
Rob Jackson, chairman of global environmental change at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, reviewed Thyne’s report and the raw data upon which it was based. He agreed the gas in Lipsky’s well could have originated in a rock formation known as the Barnett shale, the same area where Range Resources was extracting gas.
Jackson said it was ‘‘premature’’ to withdraw the order and said the EPA ‘‘dropped the ball in dropping their investigation.’’ Two of the wells included in Thyne’s report had water containing more than the 10 milligrams per liter of methane, or enough to be deemed hazardous by the EPA. One had 35 milligrams per liter, which Jackson called ‘‘particularly high’’ and an amount that federal regulators say is more than what requires immediate action.
‘‘Two of the homes had methane within the action level for hazard mitigation, one of them well above this hazard threshold,’’ Jackson said.
Lipsky, who is still tied up in a legal battle with Range Resources, now pays about $1,000 a month to haul water to his home. He, his wife and three children become unnerved when their methane detectors go off. Sometime soon, he said, the family will have to decide whether to stay in the large stone house or move.
‘‘This has been total hell,’’ Lipsky said. ‘‘It’s been taking a huge toll on my family and on our life.’’
The confidential report relied on a type of testing known as isotopic analysis, which produces a unique chemical fingerprint that sometimes allows researchers to trace the origin of gas or oil.
Jackson, who studies hydraulic fracturing and specializes in isotopic analysis, acknowledged that more data is needed to determine for certain where the gas came from. But even if the gas came from elsewhere, Range Resources’ drilling could have contributed to the problem in Lipsky’s water because gas migrates, he added.
The company insists the gas in Lipsky’s water is from natural migration and not drilling. Range Resources’ testing indicates the gas came from a different rock formation called Strawn shale and not the deeper Barnett shale, Poole said.
In addition, he said, isotopic analysis cannot be used in this case because the chemical makeup of the gases in the two formations is indistinguishable. A Range Resources spokesman also dismissed Thyne and Jackson as anti-industry.
Range Resources has not shared its data with the EPA or the Railroad Commission. Poole said the data is proprietary and could only be seen by Houston-based Weatherford Laboratories, where it originated. It was analyzed for Range Resources by a Weatherford scientist, Mark McCaffrey, who did not respond to requests for an interview.
Gas has always been in the water in that area, Poole said. And years before Range Resources began drilling, at least one water well in the neighborhood contained so much methane, it went up in flames.
At another home with dangerously high methane levels in the water, the company insisted the gas had been there since the well was first dug many years ago. The homeowner was not aware of anything wrong until Range Resources began drilling in 2009.
Jackson said it was ‘‘unrealistic’’ to suggest that people could have tainted water and not notice.
‘‘It bubbles like champagne or mineral waters,’’ he said. ‘‘The notion that people would have wells and have this in their water and not see this is wrong.’’
Associated Press writers Nomaan Merchant in Dallas, Allen Breed in Raleigh, N.C., and Michael Rubinkam in Allentown, Pa., contributed to this report.
Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP