Pennsylvania

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DEP seeks record fine against gas driller as AG files criminal charges

Pennsylvania regulators are seeking a record $4.5 million fine against EQT Corp. for a major leak from an impoundment pond in Tioga County, the Department of Environmental Protection said Tuesday in a news release. The announcement comes one week after the state Attorney General’s office filed criminal charges against the company for the same incident.

In May 2012, EQT estimates between 300 and 500 gallons of “flowback fluid” – the liquid that comes back out of the ground after a well has been fracked – seeped out of an impoundment pond at a well site in Duncan Township. Flowback contains high levels of salts, heavy metals and some naturally occurring radioactive materials.

DEP inspectors found the fluid had polluted soil, as well as nearby groundwater seeps and waterways – including Rock Run, a high quality, wild trout stream. Trees and shrubs along the path of the spill were also damaged.

EQT “has not been cooperative”

According to the DEP, the impoundment was supposed to contain six million gallons of fresh water. Instead, the agency says EQT used the pit to store flowback without a permission from the department and without the required safeguards to prevent leaks.

Acting Secretary Dana Aunkst said in a statement the company “has not been cooperative” during the state’s investigation. The agency has filed a complaint with the state Environmental Hearing Board, alleging EQT violated Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law.

The $4.5 million fine the DEP is seeking would be the largest the state has levied against a gas driller. Range Resources recently agreed to pay $4.15 million for violations at six impoundments in Washington County.

In a statement, EQT general counsel Lewis Gardner called the penalty “exorbitant” and “designed for more headlines than the lawful enforcement of the Commonwealth’s environmental statutes.” Last month, the company challenged the DEP in court over its interpretation of the Clean Streams Law.

“It’s a little overdue”

In a separate complaint filed by the Attorney General’s office on Sept. 30, EQT faces six misdemeanor charges for polluting and disturbing waterways. The office is acting on behalf of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Gardner said the company hopes to come to a settlement with the commission.

It is the second time Attorney General Kathleen Kane has brought charges against a shale gas driller in as many years. Her office filed a criminal complaint against Exxon-Mobile subsidiary, XTO Energy last fall.

Mary Greene is a senior managing attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project, which had been urging the state to take action since the spring.

“I think it’s a little overdue,” she said, “But I’m very encouraged that it’s happening.”

Read the criminal complaint filed by Kane’s office here:

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