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Court denies driller’s request for more information in spill case

A judge in Lycoming County has denied a request by ExxonMobil subsidiary, XTO Energy, seeking more information on criminal charges the company faces over a 2010 spill.

Last summer, the federal Environmental Protection Agency fined XTO $100,000 for the incident, which involved approximately 50,000 gallons of waste water being discharged into the Susquehanna River in Penn Township, Lycoming County.

The waste water contained high levels of strontium, chloride, bromide, barium, and total dissolved solids and flowed continually for more than two months in the fall of 2010, according to the EPA.

XTO originally claimed the spill was an act of vandalism, but later said it was likely caused by a contract worker. Last September, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed criminal charges.

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Chevron blocked access to DEP after fatal well fire in southwest Pa.

A fire broke out on a Chevron natural gas well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County, Pa. on Feb. 11.

Katie Colaneri/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A fire broke out on a Chevron natural gas well pad in Dunkard Township, Greene County, Pa. on Feb. 11.

When a Chevron natural gas well exploded in Greene County, killing a worker, the company blocked personnel with the state Department of Environmental Protection from accessing the site for nearly two days. The DEP acquiesced, despite its regulatory authority. Now, that issue is one of nine violations the DEP outlined in a letter to Chevron last month.

The fire started early on Feb. 11 and continued to burn for five days. When a DEP emergency crew first arrived on the scene in Dunkard Township, Chevron told them to stay away from the site and not to drive their vehicle on the access road. The crew was also blocked from parking an emergency vehicle at a nearby command center.

“They were not allowing anybody close to that well pad and I think that our feeling though was, as a regulatory agency, we want to be there, we want to see it, we want to know what Chevron is saying,” DEP spokesman John Poister said.

Drilling companies are always required to grant access to DEP officials, regardless of the circumstances, according to their state-issued permits.

When asked why the agency did not enforce its right to access the site, Poister told StateImpact Pennsylvania the agency did “strongly” express its concerns to Chevron and that the relationship between the company and the DEP improved over time.

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Pa. DEP fines Halliburton $1.8 million for numerous waste violations

Halliburton Energy Services has agreed to pay $1.8 million in fines to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection over numerous solid waste management violations at an Indiana County facility. You can read the settlement here. 

From the Associated Press:

The DEP says in a Tuesday release that Halliburton’s Homer City facility stored, treated and transported hydrochloric acid without obtaining proper permits between 1999 and 2011. That’s about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh.

DEP says the waste came from various natural gas well sites, and Halliburton transported it without proper trucking records and without using a licensed hazardous waste hauler. DEP says there’s no evidence the 255 violations caused harm to the public or the environment, and Halliburton signed a consent agreement on Feb. 7.

Halliburton, which is based in Houston, says it is working with DEP in an ongoing effort to ensure the safe development of natural resources.

According to the settlement, Halliburton also did not properly classify the hydrochloric acid as a hazardous waste and sent the waste to an unauthorized treatment and disposal facility.

The department became aware of the previous violations during two inspections in June 2011. DEP spokesman John Poister says Halliburton still operates the Homer City facility to ship unused or “new” hydrochloric acid, but no longer stores waste there.

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Municipalities defend Pa. Supreme Court ruling on Act 13

A group of municipalities that challenged the state’s oil and gas law, Act 13, are asking the Supreme Court to deny a request by the Corbett administration to reconsider its ruling.

In a response filed Thursday, the municipalities say the court determined that the section of Act 13 allowing the state to preempt local zoning rules was unconstitutional “on its face,” or “based on the plain language of the Pennsylvania Constitution” and not on facts.

The court found in its Dec. 19 ruling that the provision violated the state’s Environmental Rights Amendment which guarantees clean air, pure water and environmental protection for all generations of Pennsylvanians.

On Jan. 2, the Corbett administration asked the Supreme Court to reconsider, arguing the court made a “series of sweeping factual conclusions” about Act 13′s constitutionality.

In an interview with Radio Pennsylvania’s Ask the Governor earlier this week, Corbett said an appellate court like the state Supreme Court is not allowed to establish facts.

“I think the Chief Justice in his opinion was absolutely wrong to do that,” Corbett said. “He should have asked for more facts. He should have asked the court below to make more determination.”

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Did Pennsylvania’s highest court unravel environmental protections for oil and gas?

The state Supreme Court struck down part of Act 13 dealing with stream and wetland setbacks for gas wells.  The law required unconventional gas wells  to be 300 feet from these waterways, and the edge of the well site to be at least 100 feet away.

Tom Downing/ witf

In a 4-2 decision, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court struck down parts of state law dealing with stream and wetland setbacks for oil and gas development. Act 13 had required unconventional gas wells to be at least 300 feet from these waterways, with the edge of the well site at least 100 feet away. Drillers have said they will still adhere to the setbacks, even though they are no longer law.

The state Supreme Court decision to strike down parts of Act 13 as unconstitutional last month was hailed as a victory for local governments and environmental groups who argued the 2012 oil and gas law violated the environmental rights of Pennsylvanians.

But the court decision also undid portions of the law requiring minimum setbacks for oil and gas development near streams and wetlands.

That’s because Act 13 compelled the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to waive the setback requirements if drillers submitted a plan showing they would take adequate precautions to protect waterways. According to the DEP, less than 10 percent of permit applications seek waivers.

The court found this to be unacceptable.

“Even these modest restrictions can be averted by the gas industry,” wrote Chief Justice Ronald Castille in the majority opinion.

Earlier this week Governor Corbett asked gas companies to keep following the setback standards, even though they are no longer law. The rules say the edge of an unconventional well site must be at least 100 feet away from a streams and wetlands. The well itself was required to be at least 300 feet.

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Chapter 78: A guide to the proposed oil and gas regulations

A drill rig in Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A drill rig in Susquehanna County.

Update: The public hearing scheduled for tonight in Tunkhannock has been postponed until January 27.

State environmental regulators are gathering public comment on a proposed overhaul of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas regulations that will change the way the industry operates above ground.

The wide-ranging revision will update Chapter 78 of the Pennsylvania Code, the section of the state’s rulebook that guides the construction and operation of oil and gas wells. The proposals focus on surface activities on and off well sites: waste handling, spill prevention, pipelines, pits and the protection of public resources.

Some of the revisions were required by the passage of Act 13 in 2012, the state’s updated oil and gas law that also initiated the impact fee and spurred a legal fight over municipal rights to set limits on drilling. Other revisions reflect the Department of Environmental Protection’s effort to adapt its rules to the modern practices of a quickly evolving industry. Still others give legal strength to policies that are already in place by elevating them to the status of a regulation.

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State asks Pa. Supreme Court to reconsider parts of Act 13 ruling

A Cabot Oil & Gas rig in Susquehanna County.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

A natural gas drilling rig in Susquehanna County.

Pennsylvania is asking the state Supreme Court to reconsider some parts of its historic decision on Act 13, the 2012 overhaul of the state’s natural gas drilling laws.

In declaring parts of Act 13 unconstitutional last month, the Supreme Court cited the Environmental Rights Amendment of the state constitution that guarantees clean air, pure water and environmental preservation.

It was seen as a major victory for environmental groups and local governments, and a blow to the Corbett Administration and the oil and gas industry.

In a press release issued late Thursday afternoon, the Office of General Counsel said the court’s use of the Environmental Rights Amendment was a never-before-seen “balancing test” for constitutionality.

Governor Corbett’s General Counsel James Schultz said the court “made its own sweeping factual findings regarding the impact of Act 13″ without giving the state an opportunity to present its own evidence.

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down controversial portions of Act 13

A natural gas drilling site in Susquehanna County.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A natural gas drilling site in Susquehanna County.

The state Supreme Court struck down several controversial portions of Act 13 today. The 2012 law made major updates to the rules governing Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry.

In a 4-2 decision, the court held that portions of the law dealing with restrictions on local zoning violate Pennsylvania’s constitution. Chief Justice Ron Castille was joined by justices Todd, McCafferty and Baer in the majority. Justices Saylor and Eakin issued dissenting opinions.

Zoning rules deemed unconstitutional

One section of the law found unconstitutional called for statewide rules on oil and gas to preempt local zoning rules. Another section required municipalities to allow oil and gas development in all zoning areas.

In the majority opinion, the justices say both those provisions violate the Environmental Rights Amendment of the state constitution which guarantees, ”clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. ”

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DEP: Treatment plant must limit salty flow to Allegheny River

Waste Treatment Corporation in Warren, Pa.  faces legal action from regulators and an environmental group over discharges to the Allegheny River.

Courtesy of Clean Water Action

Waste Treatment Corporation in Warren, Pa. faces legal action from regulators and an environmental group over discharges to the Allegheny River.

A Warren County treatment plant will have to stop sending salt-rich wastewater to the Allegheny River to meet the terms of a proposed enforcement agreement announced by environmental regulators today.

Waste Treatment Corp. will have to pay a $25,000 fine and upgrade its plant to meet strict discharge limits for total dissolved solids and chlorides under the proposed consent decree.

The company has faced recent scrutiny from regulators and a lawsuit from environmental advocates after scientists with the Department of Environmental Protection found in 2012 that the plant’s discharge was harming water quality and aquatic life in the river. As part of the proposed agreement with the state, the company will have to install treatment improvements by Jan. 1, 2016 then conduct studies to ensure the water quality and biological community are restored downstream.

The treatment plant has been operating under a permit that sets no limit on the amount of total dissolved solids and chlorides it can send to the river from oil and gas and other waste streams. Although Waste Treatment stopped accepting shale drilling wastewater for discharge in 2011, it continues to release large amounts of salt. Continue Reading

Royalty disputes fuel anger over state’s oversight of gas production data

Dave DeCristo frequently calls gas companies with questions and complaints about his royalty statements.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

Businessman and landowner Dave DeCristo at his office in Canton. He frequently calls gas companies with questions and complaints about his royalty statements.

The Marcellus Shale is one of the most productive natural gas formations in the world. But when it comes to measuring precisely how productive it is, Pennsylvania doesn’t audit the numbers.

Natural gas production data is submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection directly from drillers and published online before it’s verified.

As allegations of underpaid gas royalties continue, some landowners are frustrated there is nowhere for them to go to check how much gas is produced and what they’re supposed to be paid.

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