Fort Worth-based XTO Energy has been hit with criminal charges alleging it illegally dumped more than 50,000 gallons of waste water at a well site in Pennsylvania. Tuesday, Pennsylvania’s attorney general issued a statement saying it was charging XTO with five counts of unlawful conduct under the Clean Streams Law and three counts under the Solid Waste Management Act. It said a state grand jury had recommended the criminal charges.
XTO in July settled with federal regulators in the 2010 incident, in which fluid from waste tanks in Lycoming County was found leaking into a nearby stream. XTO agreed to pay a $100,000 civil penalty and spend $20 million improving waste water handling, while noting at the time that it “acted quickly” to clean up the spill.
XTO in a statement posted Tuesday on its website called the charges “unprecedented and an abuse of prosecutorial discretion,” saying “criminal charges are unwarranted and legally baseless.” It said “there was no intentional, reckless or negligent misconduct by XTO.” The oil and gas producer, a subsidiary of Irving-based Exxon Mobil, said the U.S. Justice Department “conducted a full investigation for more than a year and concluded that criminal charges were not warranted.”
The pollution was found during an unannounced visit in November 2010 by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. It said at the time it found an open valve on one of the water tanks at the well site. According to the Pennsylvania AG’s statement Tuesday, XTO hired a contractor to recycle waste water at its Marquardt well site, but after a week told the contractor to move its equipment to another XTO site.
“However, XTO allegedly continued to transport and store gas well waste water at the Marquardt site despite not having the proper equipment on site to safely store or process it,” the AG’s statement says. It said the grand jury found that XTO did not have a permit to discharge waste water at the site and failed to report any spills. The statement included additional detail of the incident, saying state inspectors discovered a discharge valve on a tank was open and a drain plug removed. “There was also evidence of prior waste water discharges from other storage tanks at the Marquardt site,” it said.
XTO was ordered to remove 3,000 tons of soil to clean up the area. Waste water discharged from natural-gas wells can contain chlorides, barium, strontium and aluminum, the AG’s statement says.
In its statement Tuesday, XTO said bringing criminal charges “under these circumstances could discourage good environmental practices.” It said the action “tells oil and gas operators that setting up infrastructure to recycle produced water exposes them to the risk of significant legal and financial penalties should a small release occur.” Its statement includes photographs of the area that is says support its position that the spill had no lasting environmental damage.
-- Jim Fuquay