On Thursday, a Pennsylvania judge ruled that criminal charges against a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, the world’s largest energy company, will move forward. The subsidiary, XTO Energy, faces eight charges including three for unlawful conduct under the Solid Waste Management Act and five for violating rules of the Clean Streams Law, according to Law360.
In September, XTO agreed to several fines for dumping tens of thousands of gallons of fracking wastewater at a drilling site in 2010, though it contested criminal charges, saying there was “no lasting environmental impact.” XTO faces criminal charges for illegally dumping more than 50,000 gallons of toxic wastewater from Marcellus Shale operations at a site in Penn Township, Pennsylvania.
According to the attorney general’s office, XTO hired a company to recycle the toxic wastewater at its Marquardt well site in Penn Township, but directed the company to remove its processing equipment after only one week. Afterward, XTO continued to transport and store wastewater at the site although they did not have the proper equipment to store or process it.
The dumping was discovered in 2010 during an unplanned visit by an inspector with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The inspector found that a discharge valve on one of the wastewater storage tanks had been opened and the drain plug removed, causing wastewater to flow out into the ground. The wastewater made its way into a tributary of Sugar Run, Pennsylvania.
XTO was required to remove over 3,000 tons of contaminated soil from its Marquardt well site. In July, company officials agreed to pay what they termed “reasonable civil penalties,” but said the criminal charges represented “an abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”
A grand jury determined that there was evidence of prior wastewater discharges from other storage tanks at the Marquardt site. The jury also concluded that more than 93,000 gallons of wastewater was stored at the site for a period of four days in November 2010, of which about 57,000 gallons were unaccounted for after the spill.
Fracking wastewater contains toxic substances such as heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and radioactive materials. Pollutants from the wastewater released at the Marquardt site, including barium, strontium, and aluminum, were found in a tributary of the Susquehanna River basin. Fracking wastewater has the potential to contaminate the environment as well as drinking water.
Although XTO previously agreed to pay a $100,000 fine in addition to spending $20 million to improve wastewater management at its Pennsylvania and West Virginia fracking sites, a spokesperson recently denied responsibility for the spill. “We look forward to presenting our full defense at trial and we are confident that the evidence will show that XTO did not cause the spill, “XTO spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said in an email.
In November 2013, XTO faced another lawsuit by royalty owners in North Dakota. Landowners who lease their drilling rights to oil companies sued XTO and nine other US and international companies for their share of an estimated $1 billion worth of natural gas released from the “flaring” of oil wells, Dallas News reported.
Gas flaring occurs in most oil fields but is a particular problem in North Dakota, where pipeline construction is lacking, despite an oil boom that has occurred during the last few years. Landowners involved in the suit hoped to push the oil companies to reduce the amount of flaring by forcing them to pay royalties on the flared gas.