Fracking outfit Range Resources slapped Texas homeowner Steve Lipsky with a $3 million defamation suit to bully him into silence about his polluted water but Lipsky is fighting back. Lipsky is a wealthy man, not used to being bullied, but the frackers think they can use their control of the state of Texas to bulldoze him. They have bought off the Texas Railroad Commission that supposedly regulates fracking in Texas, and intimidated the USEPA into inaction so they don't intend to let minor matters like safe drinking water, private property rights and the first Amendment get in the way of their pursuit of profits.
On October 10, 2013, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals ruled that Range Resources could move forward with their defamation suit against Lipsky, based in part on accusations that Lipsky is misleading the public about being able to set his water on fire
In 2010 the EPA issued an emergency order over Lipsky's contaminated water, but then retracted the order a little over a year later with no justification. An AP investigation discovered that Range had successfully pressured the EPA into submission. Although the EPA had water chemistry measurements that showed Lipsky's water was dangerously polluted, the EPA withheld the evidence and vacated the emergency order, apparently for political reasons. The EPA's actions left Lipsky vulnerable to Range's SLAPP suit.
At first, the Environmental Protection Agency believed the situation was so serious that it issued a rare emergency order in late 2010 that said at least two homeowners were in immediate danger from a well saturated with flammable methane. More than a year later, the agency rescinded its mandate and refused to explain why.
Now a confidential report obtained by The Associated Press and interviews with company representatives show that the EPA had scientific evidence against the driller, Range Resources, but changed course after the company threatened not to cooperate with a national study into a common form of drilling called hydraulic fracturing. Regulators set aside an analysis that concluded the drilling could have been to blame for the contamination.
For Steve Lipsky, the EPA decision seemed to ignore the dangers in his well, which he says contains so much methane that the gas in water pouring out of a garden hose can be ignited.
"I just can't believe that an agency that knows the truth about something like that, or has evidence like this, wouldn't use it," said Lipsky, who fears he will have to abandon his dream home in an upscale neighborhood of Weatherford.
Because the EPA backed off the case, the Texas Railroad Commission, a regulator completely captured by the oil and gas industry it supposedly regulates, was able to hold a kangaroo court proceeding to present the appearance that Range Resources was the second coming of Snow White minus the seven dwarfs. Range was then in a position to try to silence its critics with the help of a Rush Limbaugh-loving judge.
This didn't stop the Railroad Commission - a regulatory agency that governs all things oil and gas related in Texas - from holding their own hearings that cleared Range Resources, based on evidence provided by the company. The EPA chose not to participate nor did the Lipskys since both were only given ten days to prepare, making a fair hearing improbable.
Range Resources spent millions of dollars putting on a one-sided case for the Railroad Commission, attacking all of the EPA's findings. Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, who conducted the testing for the EPA, reviewed the Railroad Commissions' findings that cleared Range Resources. He wrote: "My conclusion, that the gas well could be the source of methane in the (Lipsky) water well, was based on the chemical and isotopic data. After reviewing the Range presentation to the Texas RRC my opinion is unchanged."
The Lipskys sued Range Resources after the EPA named the company the party responsible for contaminating the well. The family was promptly counter-sued by Range Resources for defamation.
The presiding judge, Trey Loftin, dismissed the Lipskys' claims, citing lack of jurisdiction, but allowed Range’s defamation suit to proceed.
However, Bloomberg news uncovered a campaign flier that showed that Judge Loftin had an ethics problem in the case.
With aspects of the case still pending in his courtroom, Judge Trey Loftin sent fliers to voters saying he forced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to back down.
Loftin, who is campaigning to keep his state judgeship in a county west of Dallas, also sent out materials with the image of talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who credited the judge’s ruling in favor of driller Range Resources Corp. (RRC), based in Fort Worth, Texas, for getting the EPA to reverse course.
According to Kossack TexasSharon, who has obtained a report from a firewalled investigation, Range Resources has been submitting bogus results to the EPA
to cover up large-scale water contamination in Lipsky's development.
Bryce Payne, a soil scientist hired by Perdue’s neighbor as part of the area’s long-running water contamination case, says the contamination in the area is much bigger than Perdue’s one high reading. He says EPA has accepted “bogus” test results from Range and its contractors for Perdue’s water well and 17 more belonging to her neighbors.
Independent, unbiased, water studies by Duke University scientists have found severe contamination of Lipsky's water.
The results submitted to EPA by Range, he said, include contradictory data. One set shows acceptably low levels of methane in most of the water wells, while the other shows that those low levels can’t be correct.
In September 2013, tests showed gas coming out of Lipsky's water well measuring 162,000 parts per million (ppm). 50,000 ppm is considered a level for potential explosion. Air samples taken directly from the water well headspace vent showed levels exceeding 900,000 parts per million. Several residents alerted the Railroad Commission of new high-test levels, prompting the agency to reopen its investigation.
Apparently Range's owners think they can get away with all of this because they own the state of Texas and have intimidated the EPA into silence. Clearly, they have captured the Texas Railroad Commission and the state of Texas.
Television news reporters have found communications that show Range Resources failed to cement a well to prevent contamination from gas bearing layers below from flowing up to the domestic water supplies that Lipsky and his neighbors used. The Texas Railroad Commission knew the cause of the contamination, but then denied the contamination existed in the official proceedings.
In a review of Railroad Commission records, News 8 discovered correspondence between Range Resources and state regulators in which the driller agreed it had a problem. In response to that 2010 violation, Range proposed to fix its wellhead pressure problem by "circulating the cement to the surface."
Range added, "this work is to eliminate any chance that gas could be migrating from any zone" down below.
“It tells me that they waited over a year to actually realize they should have cemented to surface and realize that apparently they knew they had a problem,” Lipsky said.
But Range Resources never added the cement down well. No repairs were ever made, and the violation for gas pressure on the wellhead was later dropped by the Railroad Commission, which went on to rule that Range was not responsible for the flames coming out of the Lipsky water well.
The state also says the well is in full compliance with the law.
Despite the evidence that the fix is in, Lipsky isn't giving up.
Perhaps it's because he's a wealthy conservative who still believes that the system works for people like him. Perhaps it's because he still believes that the government will protect private property rights against pillaging by large corrupt corporations. Perhaps it's because he has invested millions into his luxurious property. However, there's a chance that Lipsky is learning that his millions are small change to the oil and gas industry and they intend to destroy him and anyone who has the courage to try to stop their depredation.
Steve Lipsky is now working with attorney Brent M. Rosenthal, who is preparing to petition for a writ of mandamus in the Texas Supreme Court asking to dismiss Range's remaining claims for defamation and business disparagement against Steven Lipsky.
"I will assert," Rosenthal says, " as I have before the Fort Worth Court of Appeals, that Range's claims are meritless and threaten the exercise of First Amendment rights by Steve Lipsky and anyone else who speaks out on issues of public concern. I hope that organizations fighting for first amendment rights and social justice, as well as those involved in the environmental movement, will be concerned about the case and will work to persuade the courts to reject claims like Range's claim against the Lipskys.