Senate GOPs: Report 'Will Cast a Shadow' Over EPA's Inspector General

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans are once again voicing displeasure over the performance of the inspector general for the Environmental Protection Agency, this time over steps taken to regulate a firm conducting hydraulic fracturing in Texas.

Seven GOP lawmakers, led by Sen. David Vitter, of Louisiana, dispatched a letter to Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr. on Wednesday, expressing disdain for his conclusions related to EPA’s interaction with Range Resources, an independent natural gas company located in Ft. Worth, Texas.

“There are a number of concerns that we have with the quality and integrity of this report which until corrected will cast a shadow over any future work from the OIG,” the group said. “It appears that this report is neither comprehensive nor unbiased and we expect your prompt and thorough attention to addressing its serious flaws.”

In dispute are actions taken by EPA’s Region 6 against Range Resources after it received a complaint from a homeowner in Parker County, Texas, in August 2010.

The homeowner said his water well had been contaminated with natural gas to the point that he could set his drinking water on fire. He indicated that he had contacted the state but they had not resolved the issue.

Region 6 conducted tests and identified a nearby gas production well as a potential source. The agency advised residents at two homes in the area to discontinue use of the well water because of high methane and benzene levels. It found that a gas production well owned by Range Resources caused or contributed to the groundwater contamination.

Texas authorities, however, disputed the results and would continue their own investigation. Range Resources, meanwhile, declined to meet with the region and indicated that they would be working with state officials to investigate and resolve the issue.

Dissatisfied with the response, the EPA decided to move under the Safe Drinking Water Act, ordering Range Resources to conduct research on the source and extent of contamination, provide drinking water to affected residents and develop a plan to mitigate contamination in the aquifer.

Range Resources refused to fully comply and instituted legal action against the EPA. The agency subsequently withdrew the order after what Vitter described as “overwhelming criticism from state officials, members of Congress and stakeholders,” reaching a nonbinding agreement with Range Resources for additional well testing.

Six senators from within District 6 asked Elkins to look into EPA’s actions. In a report issued on Dec. 20, 2013, the inspector general concluded that the agency “conformed to agency guidelines, regulations and policy” in its handling of the dispute and that its “interactions with state officials situation for evidence of and other stakeholders were appropriate.”

“The EPA reached an agreement whereby Range Resources agreed to test 20 water wells every three months for a year to provide information about the presence of more widespread contamination,” Elkins said. “According to the EPA, the sampling that Range Resources has completed indicates no widespread methane contamination of concern in the wells that were sampled in Parker County. However, the EPA lacks quality assurance information for the Range Resources’ sampling program, and questions remain about the contamination.”

The GOP lawmakers maintain the EPA acted improperly toward Range Resources and that the agency “utilized the unsupported claims, including ‘houses could explode’, in order to instill fear and justify further burdensome regulations over hydraulic fracturing.”

“When your office finally issued the report after numerous and significant delays, it was clear to us that the OIG disregarded an abundance of evidence showing that facts were manipulated, conclusions were unjustified, science was ignored, and EPA colluded with radical environmental groups,” the senators said in the letter. “The lack of specificity and detail in this report is both disappointing and troubling, and the OIG failed to incorporate clearly delineated facts, evidence, and details in substantiating a majority of the report’s conclusions, most of which serve as a rubber stamping of EPA’s actions.”

Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, led by Vitter, have been engaged in an ongoing battle with Elkins over inspector general reports they have found lacking.

Last week committee Republicans complained about an OIG finding that exonerated the EPA for using unofficial email addresses to hide their dealings from public scrutiny. Vitter charged that probe was not only insufficient but that it was conducted in a manner “that inappropriately provided cover for EPA’s problematic email practice.”

Vitter expressed concern over the scope of the OIG investigation, cited flaws in the office’s methodology and maintained investigators arrived at questionable conclusions despite evidence to the contrary.

On Feb. 18, Vitter released a report asserting that Elkins had “failed Congress in recent investigations.”

"It is incredibly disappointing to have to question the independence of the EPA Office of the Inspector General,” Vitter said. “After months of frustrating Congressional oversight of the agency, the OIG has left too many questions unanswered in the aftermath of the John Beale investigation. I can only suspect that the office has abandoned its pledge to Congress to minimize waste, fraud, and abuse at the EPA."

Beale was the EPA climate change expert who told his bosses that he was a CIA spy working in Pakistan, a position that kept him from fulfilling his duties at the agency. He pled guilty to bilking the government out of nearly $1 million in salary and other benefits over a decade.