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EPA Requires XTO Energy to pay $20 Million; Fines XTO $100,000 for 2010 Spill

July 26, 2013
Exxon Mobil XTO Energy

stock photo taken from DeSmogBlog.

In the fall of 2010 XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobile, got caught releasing thousands of gallons of fracking waste into the Susquehanna River in Penn Township, Lycoming County.  Now, they are paying for it. The Environmental Protection Agency has fined XTO Energy $100,000 for the violation and has required that the company invest $20 million into an improved fracking wastewater management system which would potentially prevent future violations.  Susan Phillips, of NPR’s StateImpact Pennsylvania, reports on the settlement:

As part of the settlement, XTO will now be required to recycle at least 50 percent of its wastewater, meaning that water will be used to frack other wells. Waste water pits or open tanks are prohibited, the company must install remote monitoring systems and establish a 24-hour emergency phone number. – Susan Phillips, StateImpact PA

The violation in 2010 was discovered on November 16, by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) during an inspection on the well site.  No one else was on the site at the time of the inspection.  According to the DEP, a valve to the fracking fluid tank was left open and, as a result, the company released between 6,300 and 57,373 gallons of  fracking wastewater into the Susquehanna River.

Testing of the wasterwater revealed that the water contained “…high levels of strontium, chloride, bromide, barium, and total dissolved solids and flowed continually for more than two months in the fall of 2010, according to the EPA,” says Susan Phillips of NPR StateImpact PA. Phillips goes on to report that XTO is a one of the state’s top violators :

Although XTO is not one of the top ten drillers in the state, it is one of the top ten violators, with nearly one violation per well. The most recent data available shows the company with 212 active wells, and a staggering 179 violations incurred by just 25 wells. The top offender is the Marquardt 8537H well, in Penn Township, which seems to be the site of this discharge.

Penn Township, Lycoming County, which covers about 26 square miles and is home to about 1000 people, has endured one of the highest numbers of drilling violations than any other municipality in the state. With 109 active wells, environmental regulators have issued 165 violations by both XTO Energy and EXCO Resources.- Susan Phillips, NPR StateImpact

Though it is good that the EPA has targeted XTO for this violation, clearly there are more questions to be asked: Why has it taken the DEP and the EPA this long to start cracking down on these companies that have been under violation for years? Or why did it take two months for the spill to be caught? And, as reported by Blake Deppe of People’s World below, why is XTO the only company being held accountable if there are many other violators?

 … Although [XTO] was singled out by the EPA and reprimanded, citizens and activists want the other polluting companies to be held responsible as well. One of these is the Waste Treatment Corporation, which has been illegally accepting fracking wastewater from other companies and emptying it into Pennsylvania’s Allegheny River, a main tributary of the Ohio River. It has been doing this since 2003, but now environmental organization Clean Water Action is suing them on the grounds that its dumping is a clear Clean Water Act violation.

And in May of this year, company Carrizo Oil & Gas was responsible for a spill of fracking fluid – 9,000 gallons to be precise – into running waters near a farm site in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania.

According to Deppe, environmentalists are suspicious not only of the EPA’s past oversights, but also of their current and future decisions around natural gas drilling in the country:

In 2011, the agency released a report in which it determined fracking was to blame for the poisoning of an aquifier beneath the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. The report was partially based on a preliminary study conducted by the EPA in which they collected toxic water samples from at least 42 homes in the area since 2008. Today, however, the EPA announced it would hand the entire study over to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Protection, whose research will be funded by none other than EnCana, the drilling company whose wells contaminated the town of Pavillion in the first place.

Environmentalists see this as a troubling sign that the agency is disengaging from many fracking issues, a move that is strangely at odds with the recent unveiling of President Obama’s plan to tackle pollution and other matters related to environmental health and climate change.

Many point to other EPA moves as proof, including the agency’s closing of an investigation into groundwater pollution in Dimock, Pennsylvania; the revision of a 2010 estimate determining that leaked natural gas was a large contributor to climate change (the EPA suggested that “better pollution control” by the fracking industry somehow made natural gas less of a factor); and failure to force a ban on diesel fuel in fracking…

… Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, remarked, “We’re seeing a pattern that is of great concern. They need to make sure that scientific investigations are thorough enough to ensure that the public is getting a full scientific explanation.” – Blake Deppe, People’s World

Similarly, an article in the Huffington Post cites concerns of how recent EPA decisions may lead to future policies:

… Environmentalists see an agency that is systematically disengaging from any research that could be perceived as questioning the safety of fracking or oil drilling, even as President Obama lays out a plan to combat climate change that rests heavily on the use of natural gas.

Over the past 15 months, they point out, the EPA has:

  • Closed an investigation into groundwater pollution in Dimock, Pa., saying the level of contamination was below federal safety triggers.
  • Abandoned its claim that a driller in Parker County, Texas, was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents’ faucets, even though a geologist hired by the agency confirmed this finding.
  • Sharply revised downward a 2010 estimate showing that leaking gas from wells and pipelines was contributing to climate change, crediting better pollution controls by the drilling industry even as other reports indicate the leaks may be larger than previously thought.
  • Failed to enforce a statutory ban on using diesel fuel in fracking. – Huffington Post

So, in conclusion? It is clearly about time that these companies started to pay for the damage they are doing to Pennsylvania’s citizens, wildlife, plant life, and water systems. Let’s celebrate for a moment that XTO Energy is being required to change their ways and also recognize that this alone does not ensure a future of holding these companies accountable.  We need to put more pressure on the EPA, the DEP, and Obama to catch these criminal companies and help our government realize that fracking cannot be done safetly.

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