EPA fines ExxonMobil subsidiary for fracking spill

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The Environmental Protection Agency has fined XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, $100,000 for the 2010 spill of fracking wastewater into a river in Penn Township, Pennsylvania. It has also ordered the company to invest at least $20 million in an improved fracking wastewater management system, which would prevent future incidents.

The improvement would entail XTO properly disposing of wastewater and increasing safety measures to prevent accidents during fracking activities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, two states in which the company operates. Part of that includes XTO installing remote monitoring systems at production sites with alarms that would be triggered in the instance of a spill.

In a statement, the EPA said that the settlement, which was finalized on June 18, "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."

Cynthia Gyles, assistant administrator at the agency's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, added, "The operational improvement required by this settlement will help to protect precious surface and drinking water resources in Pennsylvania and West Virginia."

The incident for which XTO has been fined occurred on November 16, 2010, when the company released between 6,300 and 57,373 gallons of liquid fracking waste into a tributary of the Pennsylvania Susquehanna River. The pollutant remained in the water for two months afterward before cleanup efforts took place. The accident was attributed to an open valve on a nearby wastewater storage tank.

XTO is one of the top ten repeated violators of the Clean Water Act, with 179 violations. And although it was singled out by the EPA and reprimanded, citizens and activists want the other polluting companies to be held responsible as well. One of these is the Waste Treatment Corporation, which has been illegally accepting fracking wastewater from other companies and emptying it into Pennsylvania's Allegheny River, a main tributary of the Ohio River. It has been doing this since 2003, but now environmental organization Clean Water Action is suing them on the grounds that its dumping is a clear Clean Water Act violation.

This particular wastewater has traces of radioactive elements, making it even more of an environmental and health hazard.

And in May of this year, company Carrizo Oil & Gas was responsible for a spill of fracking fluid - 9,000 gallons to be precise - into running waters near a farm site in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania.

This and more examples abound throughout the state, which has been called a "hotbed for fracking." Though the reckless behavior and deregulation of oil and natural gas companies are the most obvious culprit, some environmentalists are also criticizing the EPA for an unwillingness or inability to initiate a crackdown on such polluters.

In 2011, the agency released a report in which it determined fracking was to blame for the poisoning of an aquifier beneath the town of Pavillion, Wyoming. The report was partially based on a preliminary study conducted by the EPA in which they collected toxic water samples from at least 42 homes in the area since 2008. Today, however, the EPA announced it would hand the entire study over to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Protection, whose research will be funded by none other than EnCana, the drilling company whose wells contaminated the town of Pavillion in the first place.

Environmentalists see this as a troubling sign that the agency is disengaging from many fracking issues, a move that is strangely at odds with the recent unveiling of President Obama's plan to tackle pollution and other matters related to environmental health and climate change.

Many point to other EPA moves as proof, including the agency's closing of an investigation into groundwater pollution in Dimock, Pennsylvania; the revision of a 2010 estimate determining that leaked natural gas was a large contributor to climate change (the EPA suggested that "better pollution control" by the fracking industry somehow made natural gas less of a factor); and failure to force a ban on diesel fuel in fracking.

Notably, a diesel fuel spill occurred on July 19 in Portsmouth Lake, Virginia, poisoning water and sickening birds.

The EPA has said that the string of decisions is unrelated, and cites pressure from the drilling industry - as well as fossil fuel-pushing Republicans on Capitol Hill - as being responsible for recent inefficiencies in terms of deducing the dangers of fracking fluid. That isn't difficult to understand, nor are the obvious attempts of drilling companies to control (and often, restrict) the flow of data from fracking studies.

Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, remarked, "We're seeing a pattern that is of great concern. They need to make sure that scientific investigations are thorough enough to ensure that the public is getting a full scientific explanation."

Photo: Pits of fracking wastewater in Hickory, Pennsylvania. Flickr (CC)

 

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