A blue Sunpro container sits at Range Resources' Carter Impoundment in Washington County.
By Don Hopey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Range Resources will pay a $4.15 million penalty to settle violations related to six Marcellus Shale gas drilling and fracking wastewater impoundments in Washington County that contaminated soil and groundwater, state officials said.
It’s the largest fine ever imposed against a Marcellus Shale gas drilling company, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The consent order will result in the closing of five of the football-field-sized impoundments and require Range Resources to upgrade its operations at two others to meet more stringent, but as yet to be adopted, state standards.
DEP Secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo said the consent order “reaffirms the administration’s unwavering commitment to protecting Pennsylvania’s soil and water resources,” and establishes higher standards for construction of new impoundments.
Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella did not return phone calls seeking comment but referred inquiries to a statement posted on the company’s website that said contamination was limited to “elevated levels of chlorides, or salt, at some older facilities,” and had no impact on an private water wells. State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said the problems at the drilling reservoirs, each capable of holding 13 million to-15 million gallons of wastewater, have been well known for a long time and DEP enforcement was long overdue.
“This action is about looking good, not doing good,” Mr. White said. “The DEP will try to spin this but the $4 million is just the price of doing business for Range.”
Mr. White said the state should ban all new shale drilling wastewater impoundments because they are not considered an industry best practice and most drilling companies have stopped using them.
The DEP news release said the violations include releases of “flowback water” from wells where hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” occurred. DEP officials also said there has been no impact on local private drinking water supplies, a claim that anti-drilling activists question and that is the subject of several ongoing legal actions.
The consent order requires Range to immediately begin closing the Hopewell Township 11 impoundment known as the Lowry impoundment; the Cecil Township 23 , known as Worstell; and the Kearns impoundment, also in Cecil.
Range also will continue its ongoing closure of the Yeager impoundment in Amwell, and must close the Bednarski impoundment in Hopewell by April 2015.
The consent order said Range violated state permit requirements by failing to submit building plans to the DEP for six of the impoundments, and failed to contain spills of recycled water and fracking fluids at six impoundments.
At the Kearns impoundment, the order said Range failed to control fracking fluid from flowing from a pipe, onto the ground and into a tributary of Brush Run, a state-designated High Quality stream, resulting in harm to aquatic life.
Also at Kearns, in October 2011, the company failed to contain approximately 400 barrels of used fracking fluids, which was released into the ground and a nearby stream, Dunkle Run.
At the Yeager impoundment, Range failed to contain fracking and other fluids in February 2013 and in April and May 2014.
John Poister, a DEP spokesman in the southwest district office in Pittsburgh, said the consent order “makes it plain that we were seeing a pattern and we were concerned.”
He said the shale drilling industry has built 25 centralized impoundments to hold fresh and flowback water, and most of the problems are occurring at older reservoirs that don’t have double liners or sophisticated leak detection systems.
Although he agreed that many drilling companies have stopped using storage impoundments in favor of above-ground tank systems, he said the state is working with Range and other companies to make the impoundments work better.
“We want to see if it can be done safely and if the new standards can work,” Mr. Poister said. “If we see they don’t work, we’ll make changes.”
The order requires Range to upgrade the liner systems and leak detection mechanisms at two impoundments, one in Chartiers and the other Amwell.
The DEP is also requiring Range to “investigate and remediate any groundwater contamination caused by the previous operation of the impoundments.”
Under terms of the consent order, Range must immediately begin soil and groundwater investigations at each of the closed impoundments to determine what environmental impact they had on soil and groundwater.
“If contamination is found, the company is required to remediate the sites,” the release said.
Range’s penalty is the largest assessed by the DEP against a shale gas drilling company. Previously, the DEP fined Chesapeake Energy $1 million for a February 2011 Washington County tank fire and for a spill of hundreds of thousands of gallons of fracking fluid that contaminated several drinking water wells in Bradford County.
Don Hopey: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983.
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