Pipeline excavator gets 1 year in prison

A former pipeline construction worker was sentenced Friday to 1 year and a day in federal prison after pleading guilty last year to purposefully and willfully damaging a Marcellus Shale natural gas pipeline in Cogan House Township in June 2011.

Henry Virgil Benton, 46, of Bradford, Ark., used a track hoe to excavate the pipeline belonging to Chief Oil & Gas LLC and damaged, dented and opened holes in the pipeline. He accepted a plea agreement last July to the federal charge of willfully and knowingly damaging a pipeline during excavation activity.

Benton worked for Holloman Construction, a Texas-based contractor, and was terminated by the company. Although he’s making steady payments toward restitution, he has $121,100 to pay back the company.

“I’m truly sorry all this came about,” Benton said at the sentencing before U.S. Middle District Judge John E. Jones III. “It was an unfortunate set of circumstances.”

Jones noted Benton committed multiple incidents of damage and that if he did not impose a sentence of prison it would do little to deter similar activities from occurring. The underlying question was his motive.

“I’m not sure what motivated you to do this,” Jones said. “The best I can figure is it was a fit of anger. You are largely a decent person and a stand-up guy.”

Jones said the case was sad and tragic because of the amount of money it has cost Benton due to restitution and court costs, money that could much better be served going to his family.

“You’re a skilled equipment operator and one in great demand,” Jones said. “But you hit pipeline with heavy equipment and deserve a federal sentence.”

Jones made him eligible for supervised release after the prison sentence is served. Benton’s criminal history included illegal drug and firearm possession and assault.

“Was it work place hooliganism or industrial sabotage?” Assistant U.S. Attorney George Rocktashel asked. Either way, Benton’s actions had implications for the national interest, Rocktashel said. While the line was not filled with gas, it was designed to connect to one that provided for interstate transmission of gas to users nationally and for export purposes.

Transmission of the fuel source not only has regional importance, in providing employment and contributing to the economy, but is meant to reduce the nation’s energy dependence on foreign sources of energy, Rocktashel said.

Benton was represented by D. Toni Byrd, a federal public defender, who said his family describes him as a caring, kind and hardworking man.

“He had drug problems in the past,” she said.

The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state police.

Jones has recommended he serve at a prison in Arkansas to be near his family and wanted him to get the sentence over with and get back into the workforce because of his skill, his need to make whole restitution to the company and provide an income for his family.