Fracking Victim Steve Lipsky's Flaming Water is No Joke

Weatherford, Texas, homeowner Steve Lipsky has nothing to hide. He is not trying to take down Range Resources, a large oil and gas company with a reputation for bullying its critics, nor is he trying to defame the company as it has accused him of in a defamation lawsuit demanding over $3 million.

Lipsky, a private, conservative man who made his nest egg in the banking industry, now finds himself playing the role of David against a modern day Goliath in a battle fraught with Kafkaesque moments. After what  looked at first like an open and shut case of industrial negligence turned into a lengthy legal battle, h e must either fight or accept financial ruin.

In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that Range Resource’s drilling activities at a nearby fracking project had contaminated Lipsky’s well.

Lipsky can light the water coming out of his well on fire.

A point of contention is a piece of garden hose that Lipsky attached to the vent coming out of his water well headspace. In a video he released online and provided to regulatory agencies, Lipsky sets fire to gas flowing through the hose that he attached to the vent. Range Resources claims the use of the hose made it seem like Lipsky was setting his water on fire.

“The hose was used in the interest of safety, not to deceive anyone,” Lipsky counters. The first time he lit the vent on fire the whole well ignited. Lipsky attached the hose to direct the venting gas downwind of the well before lighting it again. 

In the video, Lispky never claims to be setting his water ablaze. Why would he make gas seem like flammable water, when he has water he can set on fire too?

Lipsky’s dream house has become a nightmare.  He is not alone. Several of his neighbors have the same problem he does, but after witnessing what has happened to the Lipskys for fighting back, they’re reluctant to speak out.

Shelly Purdue recently went on camera with local TV anchor Brett Shipp, showing that she too can light her water well vent on fire.  She too installed a vent to alleviate the problem but is still living in a volatile situation.

Other neighbors have installed expensive water filtration systems so they can drink their water but that doesn’t eliminate the danger. Independent testing has shown that several residents’ water well holding tanks are well above explosive limits.

A team from Duke University is conducting a study in the area and released information to the homeowners alerting them to the hazardous conditions. The final results of the study will be released in the coming months.

The EPA’s findings also established that there are dangerous levels of gas escaping from Lipsky’s well. They named Range Resources as the party responsible for the contamination and issued an Administrative Emergency Order against the company in December 2010.  

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. 

The Lipskys’ lawyer, Allen M. Stewart, argued that the libel suit went against the Texas Citizens Participation Act, also known as the Texas Anti-SLAPP Act, which was passed in order to allow citizens sued in retaliation for the exercise of their constitutional and common law rights of freedom of expression to avoid the expense and burden of defending meritless suits for defamation, business disparagement, and similar torts based on the exercise of those rights. The act achieves its purpose by allowing defendants in such suits to seek and obtain early dismissal before being forced to participate in costly discovery. But the Lipskys’ request to dismiss the case was denied.

The initial rulings against the Lipskys by Judge Loftin are problematic. Loftin found merit in Range Resources’ claim that Lipsky was purposely misleading the public by using the garden hose demonstration, a key element in the libel suit. But Loftin later recused himself from the case. Loftin’s bias emerged when one of his campaign fliers in his recent bid for reelection stated, “The EPA, using falsified evidence provided by a liberal activist environmental consultant, accused and fined a local gas driller of contaminating wells,” and “President Barack Obama’s EPA backed down only after Judge Trey Loftin ruled that the evidence was ‘deceptive’.”

Range Resources didn’t stop at suing the Lipskys. They also went after the EPA. After over a year of litigation, the EPA withdrew their emergency order requiring the company to provide drinking water to the Lipskys.

In a statement to the press, the EPA said, “Resolving the lawsuits with Range allows EPA to shift the Agency in this particular case away from litigation and toward a joint effort on the science and safety of energy extraction. EPA and Range will share scientific data and conduct further well monitoring in the area, and Range will also provide useful information and access to EPA in support of EPA’s inquiry into the potential impacts of energy extraction on drinking water.”