A subsidiary of Exxon Mobil that reached a settlement with the federal
government earlier this summer resolving allegations that the company illegally released wastewater from a hydraulic fracturing site in north-central Pennsylvania is now being charged by state authorities in connection with the incident.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office announced Wednesday that it is charging XTO Energy Inc. with illegally discharging more than 50,000 gallons of toxic wastewater from a Marcellus Shale natural gas well site in Penn Township, Lycoming County.
A statewide investigating grand jury recommended that criminal charges be filed against the Indiana, Pa.-based company.
XTO Energy owns the Marquardt well site in Penn Township, which contains two natural gas wells in which hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” takes place.
The process of hydraulic fracturing involves releasing chemicals into the earth in an effort to extract the natural gas from shale deposits.
Fracking, as it is more commonly known, is a controversial practice shunned by environmentalists.
During natural gas extraction, the wells produce wastewater filled with toxic substances such as chloride, barium, strontium and aluminum.
XTO Energy allegedly stored the wastewater in 21,000-gallon storage tanks at the Marquardt site for subsequent processing, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
The investigating grand jury determined that XTO had hired a third party to recycle the wastewater at the site from Nov. 4 to Nov. 11, 2010, after which the defendant instructed that company to remove XTO’s processing equipment from the site and take it to a well site in West Virginia.
Meanwhile, XTO continued to transport and store gas well wastewater at the Penn Township, Pa. site despite not having the proper equipment to safely store or process the material, prosecutors contend.
A Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection inspector discovered the illegal wastewater discharge during a surprise visit to the Marquardt site on Nov. 16, 2010, according to the Attorney General’s Office.
During the visit, the state environmental inspector found that a wastewater storage tank had been opened with the contents spilling out onto the ground.
The grand jury determined that between Nov. 12 and 16 of that year, more than 93,000 gallons of the wastewater had been transported to and from the hydraulic fracturing site, of which about 57,000 gallons was unaccounted for following the spill.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane maintains that the toxic material ended up flowing into and polluting a local tributary.
The DEP ended up ordering XTO to excavate and remove from the well site more than 3,000 tons of contaminated soil, according to the A.G.’s Office.
The defendant is accused of failing to put in place a spill containment system under any of the storage tanks at the Marquardt site, failing to lock and secure the tanks, and failing to employ security measures to ensure unauthorized people wouldn’t be able to access the site.
XTO Energy, prosecutors allege, didn’t have a permit to discharge wastewater at the site, and subsequently failed to report any toxic spills to the state DEP, as required by Pennsylvania law.
The company is facing charges of unlawful conduct of the Clean Streams Law and unlawful conduct under the Solid Waste Management Act.
Troubles for the Exxon Mobil Corp. subsidiary began earlier.
As previously reported by the Pennsylvania Record, XTO agreed to a $100,000 settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in mid-July relating to the toxic spill.
In addition to agreeing to pay the hefty civil settlement, XTO Energy also agreed to spend an estimated $20 million on a comprehensive plan to improve wastewater management practices to recycle, properly dispose of, and prevent toxic spills generated via natural gas exploration and production activities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
As part of the agreement with the federal government, the energy company also said it would install a remote monitoring system for all of its permanent production in both states with alarms that would signal potential future spills.