Company fined for dumping HCl in Oklahoma. How safe are Pennsylvania's waters?

On our last show, Dave Yoxtheimer from Penn State's Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research talked about some of the hazardous materials used in hydraulic fracturing operations. One of those is hydrochloric acid. According to the Department of Justice's Office of Public Affairs, an employee of Integrated Production Services, LLC has pleaded guilty to improper handling of 500-700 gallons of the acid.

Here's DOJ's release:
WASHINGTON – Integrated Production Services, LLC, (IPS), a Houston-based natural gas and oil drilling contractor, pleaded guilty today to a negligent violation of the Clean Water Act in federal court in Muskogee, Okla., announced Assistant Attorney General Ignacia S. Moreno for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, and Mark Green, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.

In entering the plea, which is subject to approval by the court, IPS has agreed to pay a $140,000 criminal fine and to make a community service payment of $22,000 to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for ecological studies and remediation of Boggy Creek, located in eastern Oklahoma. IPS will serve a two-year period of probation, during which it will be required to implement and perform an environmental compliance program at a cost of $38,000, to train IPS employees regarding proper hazardous waste handling and spill response procedures.

In May 2007, IPS was performing drilling operations at the Pettigrew natural gas well site in Atoka County, Okla. The company’s operations included hydraulic fracturing, which entails the use of drills and hydrochloric acid to penetrate through bedrock and substrata in order to access natural gas reserves. On May 24, 2007, a tank at the site leaked hydrochloric acid onto the bermed surface of the well, which also was flooded due to recent heavy rainfall. Rather than taking the necessary steps to properly remove the rainwater from the site, Gabriel Henson, an IPS supervisor, drove a company pickup truck through the earthen berm, causing the discharge of the rainwater and an estimated 400-700 gallons of hydrochloric acid into Dry Creek, a tributary of Boggy Creek.

On July 20, 2011, Henson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act. Henson is awaiting sentencing. He faces up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. “As hydraulic fracturing occurs with increasing frequency across the country, companies and individuals involved in those operations must adhere to the laws that protect human health and the environment and level the playing field for responsible businesses,” said Assistant Attorney General Moreno. “We recognize the critical importance of developing domestic sources of energy responsibly, and will continue to vigorously prosecute illegal conduct.”

“This was a case of a corporate employee making a careless decision that caused the release of dangerous hydrochloric acid into our waters,” said U.S. Attorney Green. “Whether to expedite oil production or to save corporate expense, these types of actions cannot be justified nor can they be tolerated. This office will pursue all legal remedies necessary to prevent and/or punish such actions.”

“Hydrochloric acid is a highly corrosive substance. Its release into a tributary of Boggy Creek was a serious threat to the environment,” said Ivan Vikin, Special Agent-in-Charge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) criminal enforcement program in Oklahoma.

“Today’s guilty plea demonstrates that companies will be held responsible for environmental crimes.” This case was investigated by the U.S. EPA Criminal Investigation Division and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office of Inspector General. The case is a joint prosecution between the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Oklahoma and the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Just a few weeks ago I was at an EPA public comment hearing on new regulations for natural gas operations (tweeted here on September 27th, 2011). Outraged Pennsylvanians at that hearing wondered who in the government was sticking up for them. It appears as though someone is working in Oklahoma.

But do you ever wonder how many spills like this happen and aren't caught? I am reminded of Jeff Tietz's Rolling Stone article (pdf) on the pork industry a couple of years ago in which he alleged that Smithfield Foods' chairman Joseph Luter III said that the 74 EPA citations under the Clean Water Act were paltry in comparison to the likely 2.5 million violations he estimated they'd actually committed.

The oil and gas industry is not the same as the pork industry. But much of the public suspects that there is woefully little oversight. According to Mary Carol-Frier who compiled DEP numbers with Pennsylvania Land Trust Association report numbers (pdf) , between January of 2008 and June of 2010 in Pennsylvania, the oil and gas industry were cited by DEP for 161 violations for discharge of industrial waste including into streams, 524 discharges of pollutional materials into waters of Commonwealth, 1,149 Oil and Gas Act-specific violations, including improper pits, impoundments, well waste treatment, well casements and cementing and plugging. It is troubling to imagine that the oil and gas industry could be cited for as relatively few violations as the pork industry might have been.

Pennsylvania has the second most surface water in the fifty states after Alaska and a booming gas industry. Many people aren't sure who's protecting them. One woman at the EPA hearing pointed her finger at the board and said, "How do you sleep at night? You're supposed to be protecting us." Three compressor stations roar around her property and fill the air with a smell she can hardly believe. "It's like living in a third world country."

As Dave Yoxtheimer said on our show, there are some good actors and some who aren't. There are the fly-by-night guys and those who are good neighbors who work with families, municipalities and the state. Can we get all of them to be the best neighbors they can be?

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