Some oil and gas operators in West Virginia spilled wastewater into the environment even after getting multiple citations from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Between 2011 and 2012, companies including Raven Ridge Energy LLC, Chesapeake Appalachia LLC, Patriot Energy Inc. and EQT Corp. were cited for repeated violations including working without a permit, spilling wastes into state waters, and failing to properly construct roads and pads.
Threats to ground and surface water from oil and gas drilling pose one of the bigger challenges for state regulators. Once well pads are constructed and wells are drilled and hydraulically fractured, significant amounts of mud, flowback and wastewater are generated. Up to 4 million gallons of water is used to frack each well. Companies can dump their wastewater in pits, which are containment dams lined with plastic. The water is later disposed of in underground injection control wells, and the pits are filled in and reclaimed.
Inspection reports from the DEP's Office of Oil and Gas (OOG) show repeated violations by operators, sometimes on the same well pad within a span of months. The OOG, working within the narrow confines of its power granted by the state Legislature, initially issues violation notices to a company. If the problems on a work site are not fixed, the OOG can issue a stop work notice, assess a fine, or file a misdemeanor charge or injunctive relief. The office cannot withdraw a permit already granted, but it can suspend it and block future permits.
In April 2011, Raven Ridge Energy was cited for constructing a well pad without first informing the OOG. Then in May, the company was cited for building an illegal road up to the well pad. The construction led to sediment fouling the creek.
"Start adhering to permit as approved, quit taking short cuts," inspector Terry Urban wrote in the violation notice. The company later fixed the violations.
Similar incidents with other companies suggest that a violation notice, instead of being a deterrent, is a good indicator of future misdeeds.
Because Raven cleaned up after each violation was found, it did not get a stop work order. But the company continued violating environmental regulations on other well pads. In December 2011, it was cited for not having a sediment control plan in place on a well pad. The same month, it was cited for starting work at another location without a permit. In February and June 2012, the company was cited for polluting waters of the state. In December 2012, it was cited for beginning work without a permit and for failing to prevent sediment from contaminating surface waters.
The DEP said it has stepped up its enforcement, adding eight inspectors to its rolls. The state has updated its law to deal with horizontal drilling, and the DEP currently has 40 pages of new rules for approval in the Legislature, Kathy Cosco, communications director of the DEP, said in an email.
Work now, fix later
Inspection records from the OOG and landowner complaints suggest the industry sometimes violates first and fixes later. A recent report on ground pits in West Virginia suggested as much, finding that operators often ignore the conditions of their permits when building pits and do not follow best management practices (EnergyWire, March 22).
The challenges in regulating the industry are laid out in the case of Elkview, W.Va.-based Patriot Energy. Urban arrived at a Patriot Energy work site on Dec. 23, 2010, and found crude oil spilling from cut pipelines. He issued a notice of violation to the company.
That evening, Gary Payne, the chief executive officer of Patriot Energy, called Urban and "stated if I would meet him for breakfast about a job as an environmental coordinator and would pay me cash under the table," Urban wrote in a note. "I abruptly told Payne I would not do that!!"
Payne told EnergyWire that he had wanted not to offer a bribe but to hire Urban as an environmental consultant. He was having problems with environmental compliance, and Urban's skills would have helped, he said.
Urban subsequently issued 25 violation notices to Patriot Energy in 2011 and 2012. Some wells were not marked with an American Petroleum Institute identification number. Other wells had wastewater contaminating streams, and in other cases, the company had not called the DEP to report a spill. Gas sometimes leaked from wellheads. Problems were not abated.
In January 2011, Payne complained to the OOG that Urban was unfairly targeting his company for violations when other operators were equally negligent. He pointed to cases where storage tanks were leaking in plain view by the side of the road. Urban was selective in his enforcement, he wrote in an email to the OOG.
"AGAIN, with no land owner complaint," he wrote, as though OOG inspections should not happen without specific complaints.
The OOG has not issued violations against Patriot Energy since 2012. The company continues to operate in the state.
Help for surface owners?
The politics between drillers and DEP enforcement has left landowners sometimes feeling shorthanded in taking on the industry. Landowners say it can be difficult to get action from the DEP on spills on their property, and they are not always informed of a violation that could affect their water resources.
When the OOG issues violation notices for water contamination, it sometimes asks the company to test soil for toxic chemicals. In one case in Harrison County, that testing was the beginning and end of the enforcement, said Marc Glass, an environmental scientist at Downstream Strategies who often works with landowners to document contamination.
When Glass arrived at the client's property in September 2011, he saw a pit in the ground holding flowback and produced water. The 40-millimeter plastic sheet lining the pit was torn.
The pit was in direct contact with fractured bedrock, a potential conduit between the flowback and groundwater, according to Glass. When he tested the family's water well, he found contaminants including hydrocarbons, arsenic, manganese, chlorides and other contaminants of gas drilling. The family's water supply was tainted.
Water monitoring wells would have allowed the DEP to track the movement of the contaminant plumes in case they posed a risk to groundwater, but they weren't required in this case.
"If it was a gas station that had leaked the same contaminants, there would be several monitoring wells required by law," Glass said. "But for the oil and gas industry, it is not automatically required by law, it is at the discretion of the Division of Oil and Gas."
The DEP said in an email that there have been spills where it has required groundwater and stream monitoring to ensure there are no residual pollutants.
The violation on this property was abated in September 2011, according to OOG records. That's an indication of how narrowly the agency defines the abatement process, because two years after the incident, the homeowners are still struggling with their water supply. The gas company has been supplying the family with bottled water. The family is now lobbying the company for a filter on their drinking water well.
"The Office of Oil and Gas sees it [violations] as a civil issue between surface owner and gas company," said the landowner, who prefers to remain anonymous because he is negotiating with the gas company. "There is no state agency that helps the surface owner."
In another case, Casey Griffith, a landowner in Marion County, recalled that a driller on his property had allowed an impoundment in front of his house to drain into a creek. Griffith called the DEP and provided the agency with photos of the violation. The agency did not write up the violation, he said. In another incident, the company had built the well pad without soil and erosion control, allowing sediment to flow off the well site, across the country road and into his yard.
One of the cases of repeated violations was logged in Fayette County, near the town of Lochgelly. Danny Webb Construction Inc. got a permit in 2002 to operate an underground injection control (UIC) well. The company collects wastewater from oil and gas operators and stores it in a ground pit for a while. It then pumps the materials into the ground for disposal.
In 2004, residents smelled a sulfurous odor. They called the DEP, which found that the company had stored the sulfur-containing wastewater from Bobcat Oil and Gas Inc. in an open pit. The pit was giving off the smell, associated with toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. The DEP ordered the company to immediately stop working with Bobcat.
But the company continued to receive Bobcat wastewater until 2007, according to DEP records.
Meanwhile, residents continued to complain of bad smells. One resident said the smell was so strong that he immediately called 911. The county health department also noted in 2007 that several residents had complained. Danny Webb, proprietor of the company, had told them the fumes were emitted when gases collecting inside tanks storing wastewater were vented to the atmosphere.
The company did not return a request for comment.
The DEP also found the work site did not have the culverts, ditch lines and sediment control needed to prevent sediments from flowing into the creek, the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a letter to the DEP.
The same year, an inspector with the DEP's underground storage tank program wrote to the OOG of Webb: "He is a loose cannon, doing as he jolly well pleases, right or wrong, regulations be damned."
Despite unabated violations, the agency renewed the company's permit in October 2007. At the same time, the agency asked the company to shut down its pits.
"There is strong evidence that DEP has turned a blind eye to a flagrant violator and DEP must use this case to reassess its oversight of the UIC program and all oil and gas waste management in the state of West Virginia," Matthew McFeeley, a staff attorney with the NRDC, wrote to the OOG.
In 2008, the company was cited for operating a well without a permit. The OOG also found that the company had not closed down its pit. This was OK because the company monitors a nearby stream for pollutants, wrote Cosco, communications director of the DEP.
"We have not seen parameters such as chlorides and hydrocarbons substantially elevated, which would indicate pit leakage," she wrote.
The company continues to operate in the state. That's because the company had addressed all the violations issued to it, Cosco added.
The DEP will hold a public hearing in the next few weeks on renewing the company's permit, she said.