HARRISBURG – Driller John D. Branch's permit to drill underneath an active refinery, including a tank holding millions of gallons of gasoline, has been upheld despite concerns the “fracking” could cause a catastrophe.

United Refining Co. v. Department of Environmental Protection was decided June 12 by the Commonwealth Court, which affirmed the July 2016 order of the Environmental Hearing Board dismissing United Refining Co.'s appeal of an oil permit to Branch. United Refining contended that the board’s decision is contrary to the Environmental Rights Amendment.

United Refining Co. has owned and operated a petroleum refinery in Warren since 1902. There are several storage containers for petroleum on the refinery’s property, on the north shore of the Allegheny River. There are also several monitoring wells on the property.

Included in the refinery property is Tank 234. “Tank 234 has the capacity to contain 3.6 million gallons of gasoline. Tank 234 has a steel floor, concrete ring wall, and an earthen dike designed to contain 110 percent of its contents. It sits on fill materials, soils, gravels, silt sands, and clays and the bedrock is approximately 75 feet below the bottom of the tank,” according to the court opinion. 

United Refinery discovered an oil plume below Tank 234 in 2001. United Refinery is not aware of any unplugged wells around the tank. 

In 2014, Branch submitted an application for a permit to drill (on a slant) a hydraulically fractured oil well that would extend underground to the United Refining Co.’s property. He also wanted to drill other wells near United Refining Co.’s property. 

United Refining Co. expressed concerns about the proposed drilling. Branch assured it he would take steps to avoid any drilling disasters, such as halting drilling if it interfered with another well, as indicated on gauges. Permits were issued to Branch for six wells.

United Refining Co. appealed the issuance of the permits, “...identifying its concern that energy released by Branch’s fracking could be conveyed through an unplugged well and result in damage to Petitioner and the surrounding community, including potentially a large - scale fire or explosion, as well as a release of oil into the water of the Commonwealth,” the opinion states.

The appeal was dismissed in July 2016 after a hearing before the board, which included the testimony of geologists voicing concerns about the location of the drilling in proximity to Tank 234.

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