Drilling contractor fined $100,000

HUGHESVILLE – A natural gas company operating on Marquart Road in Penn Township was penalized Thursday for getting frack water into a tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

XTO Energy must pay $100,000 and start a $20 million site improvement program for spilling chemical-laced water on Nov. 10, 2010, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice.

Attempts to reach an XTO representative Thursday were unsuccessful after a message with left with the company answering service.

XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp., was ordered to spend $20 million to improve wastewater management practices to recycle, properly dispose of and prevent spills of wastewater generated from natural gas exploration in this state and West Virginia.

An inspector with the state Department of Environmental Protection discovered pollution occurred Nov. 16, 2010. That’s when the company released between 150 to 1,366 barrels, or 6,300 to 57,373 gallons of flowback and produced water into state streams, according to the government report.

The spill, which initially was estimated at more than 13,000 gallons by the company, polluted an unamed tributary to Sugar Run and a spring, said state Department of Environmental Protection Regional Director Nels Taber at the time of the spill.

The inspector observed wastewater spilling from an open valve from a series of interconnected tanks. XTO stored wastewater generated from energy extraction activities and stored produced fluid from its operations in the area.

The investigation determined that wastewater stored in the tanks at the facility contained the same variety of pollutants, including chlorides, barium, strontium and total dissolved solids, that were observed in surface waters. Untreated discharges of wastewaters from natural gas exploration and production activities typically contain high levels of total dissolved solids and other pollutants and can adversely impact fresh water aquatic life and drinking water quality, according to the EPA.

The settlement “holds XTO accountable for a previous violation of the Clean Water Act and requires operational changes and improved management practices to help ensure the safe and responsible handling of wastewater produced during natural gas exploration and production activities,” according to Robert G. Dreher, acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division.

Among improvements under the settlement, the company must install a continuous, remote monitoring system for all of its permanent production throughout both states. The systems must have alarms that trigger to alert the operators immediately in the event of any other spills and start a program to monitor interconnected wastewater storage tanks in both states.

“The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that our natural resources are developed in an environmentally responsible manner,” Dreher said.

“This consent degree establishes a program of best practices that should be a model for the industry and, if followed, will give a level of assurance to the people of Pennsylvania that their waters will be protected … it is in the long-term best interest of the taxpayers, the industry, and our children,” said Peter J. Smith, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Wastewater associated with shale gas extraction can contain high levels of salts, fracturing fluid additives, metals and naturally occurring radioactive materials. Quantity and quality of waters used from shale gas exploration varies from basin to basin, and over the lifetime of a well.

“EPA continues to push for responsible development of domestic sources of energy and to insist that companies play by the rules that protect public health.”