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Gas processing plants reach settlement with EPA over alleged violations

A crew works on a well site in Zelionople, Pa. 2012.

Keith Srakocic / AP

A crew works on a well site in Zelionople, Pa. 2012.

The owners of five Pennsylvania natural gas processing plants have reached a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for allegedly failing to take measures to guard against spills and leaks on their sites in McKean and Warren Counties, the EPA said on Thursday.

Elkhorn Investments and Elkhorn Gas Processing, both based in Oklahoma, have agreed to pay a penalty of $50,221 and correct defects at the plants that could have had major environmental impacts if they had led to spills or leaks of oil and gas, and related products, the federal agency said.

Although no such incidents occurred, the company failed to take measures to prevent them from happening, the EPA said. It said the company violated regulations that require it to build drainage and spill containment areas, ensure proper venting on waste oil tanks, and install barriers to prevent trucks hitting storage tanks.

“What we’re alleging in these cases is the potential for high risk, and the duty that the company has to protect its employees and the community in its operations,” said Bonnie Smith, a spokeswoman for the EPA.

“There wasn’t a spill at any of these facilities but it’s a requirement, and these requirements are preventative, and if they are not in place, they could cause, in some cases, catastrophic problems,” Smith said.

The settlement is the latest example of enforcement actions that the EPA has taken against natural gas processing plants in Pennsylvania, Smith said. The other actions include one against Mark West Liberty at two of its facilities in Evans City; against Penn Oaks Energy in Kane, and against National Fuels in Van, Pennsylvania.

Under the settlement – which also included a plant in West Virginia — the company agreed to comply with the regulations, she said. “The corrections they made were either things that they needed to put in place or needed to be improved.”

Among the violations, the EPA said the company did not install venting on waste oil tanks at three sites, failing to comply with a regulation that is designed to relieve pressure inside the tanks in the event of a fire. The lack of adequate venting violated the Clean Air Act, the agency said.

At three of the plants, the company failed to build safeguards to prevent the accidental release of liquid propane gas or condensate, the EPA said, citing inspections that took place in 2012.

“EPA inspectors observed that the tanks containing LPG or condensate … lacked a means to prevent an accidental release of liquid from endangering important facilities and adjoining property or from reaching waterways,” the agency said, in a 24-page complaint.

And at four plants, the companies did not install protective barriers such as bollards that are designed to protect LPG tanks from being hit by trucks.

In the settlement, the companies agreed to rectify the deficiencies; to install warning systems in two of the plants to notify employees of gas releases or fires, and to revise emergency response plans.

The EPA issued an order in September 2014 requiring compliance at the plants, and then began the process of settling the alleged violations, determine a penalty, and enter into a consent agreement and final order, Smith said. Under the settlement, the companies have neither admitted or denied the allegations but they have now come into compliance, she said.

Peter Stinson, an attorney for the companies, declined to comment.

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