Exxon Mobil’s energy corporation division, XTO Energy, Inc., and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently reached a civil action settlement after approximately 57,000 gallons of wastewater were illegally discharged at the division’s shale gas drill site in Lycoming County, Pa. According to the EPA, XTO violated Section 301 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. § 1311. The CWA prohibits the discharge of any pollutants to waters of the United States, except in compliance with a permit issued pursuant to Section 402 of the CWA, 33 U.S.C. § 1342 (“XTO Energy, Inc. Settlement,” www.epa.gov). XTO’s CWA violations were brought to the EPA’s attention after a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) inspection in 2010.
During an unannounced inspection of XTO’s Penn Township drill site and wastewater storage facility, PADEP discovered that flowback water housed in one of the wastewater storage tanks had spilled into the nearby Sugar Run stream, a tributary of the Susquehanna River. Flowback water is water that resurfaces after it is injected into a vertically drilled wellbore during the hydraulic fracturing process. According to a statement released by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, “a rear discharge valve on a storage tank had been opened and a drain plug had been removed, causing well waste water to flow out of the storage tank onto the ground.” Wastewater that is typically housed at such shale gas drill sites often contains substances such as chloride, barium, strontium, and aluminum. While these substances can be toxic when released in high quantities, there appears to be no lasting environmental impact caused by XTO’s wastewater discharge. The Attorney General’s Office did not include a specific quantity of the substances released from the wastewater storage tank discharge. PADEP directed the removal of more than 3,000 tons of soil affected by the discharge from the drill site area.
As part of the settlement with the EPA, XTO will pay a $100,000 civil penalty and install an extensive monitoring system at all of its Pennsylvania and West Virginia drill sites. The monitoring system will trigger an alarm for operators to be notified immediately if any spills occur, ensuring the prompt discovery of any future spills. In addition, the settlement requires XTO to develop a comprehensive plan to improve management practices for spill prevention, recycling, and proper disposal of wastewater from shale gas production practices. The cost of developing and implementing the comprehensive plan is estimated at $20 million.
The Attorney General’s Office has also filed criminal charges against XTO. These charges include five counts of unlawful conduct under Pennsylvania’s Clean Stream Act and three counts of unlawful conduct under the state’s Solid Waste Management Act. A grand jury found that “XTO did not have a permit to discharge waste water at the Marquardt [Penn Township] site and failed to report any waste water spills to DEP as required by law.”
In a statement posted on the company’s website, the XTO unit called the state’s criminal charges “unprecedented, baseless and an abuse of prosecutorial discretion. There was no intentional, reckless, or negligent misconduct by XTO. The incident did not result in significant or lasting environmental harm. Charging XTO under these circumstances could discourage good environmental practices, such as recycling.” To view the company’s complete response to the Attorney General’s charges, as well as pictures of the Marquardt well site in Lycoming County, visit www.xtoenergy.com/pressreleases/xto-energy-to-challenge-charges-by-pennsylvania-attorney-general.
No date has been scheduled as to when XTO’s criminal case will be prosecuted. However, the Attorney General’s Office did indicate that Chief Deputy Glenn A. Parno of the Attorney General’s Environmental Crimes Section will prosecute the case in Lycoming County.
The federal settlement sets a precedent for all shale gas drilling companies to closely monitor their drill sites, and ensure that their facilities meet all state and federal environmental protection laws and regulations. To read complete statements and resource information from the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, the EPA, and XTO regarding the wastewater discharge, settlement, and criminal charges, follow the links provided below.
EPA enforcement of XTO Energy, Inc., settlement resources: http://www2.epa.gov/enforcement/xto-energy-inc-settlement
Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office statement: www.attorneygeneral.gov/press.aspx?id=7191