WASTEWATER: Multiple Violations Don't Change Habits of Some
26 March 2013
Gayathri Vaidyanathan, E&E reporter
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
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
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
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
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
The DEP said in an email that there have been spills where it has
required groundwater and stream monitoring to ensure there are no
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
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
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
The company continues to operate in the state. That's because the
company had addressed all the violations issued to it, Cosco
The DEP will hold a public hearing in the next few weeks on
renewing the company's permit, she said.