EPA Adds $84,500 Fine for Well Fire

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
19 October 19, 2012
By Sean D. Hamill

In a move that may be a first for the state during the Marcellus Shale era, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced it had fined Atlas Resources LLC $84,500 for a 2010 well fire in Washington County -- the same well fire the state had already fined Atlas $80,000 for last year.

Although the two government fines focused on different aspects of the incident, John Poister, a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, said this appears to be the first time a Marcellus Shale driller has been fined by both the federal and state environmental departments for the same incident in Pennsylvania.

He insisted that the state is not bothered by the EPA's action.

"The EPA is, after all, a federal agency and they are also responsible for environmental oversight, so, it's within their purview," he said. "I mean, our feelings aren't hurt."

Bonnie Smith, an EPA spokeswoman, said she would not talk about the "strategy" of why the EPA decided to issue a fine in this one accident among the hundreds that have occurred at Marcellus Shale drill sites that also have resulted in state fines.

"There was a fire. We looked into it and investigated it and issued this fine and action," she said.

But David Hess, former DEP secretary under Pennsylvania governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, and now a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said it's pretty clear to him why the EPA weighed in on this case: "This was a juicy target."

"It's a well-known case and [the EPA] has been looking at these high-profile targets to come in and make a point of showing people that the EPA has independent authority and they can come in here and do enforcement," he said.

According to both the state and federal governments, the fire on March 21, 2010, was sparked by a generator that ran mobile light fixtures at the site. The spark ignited fumes from both liquid gas products that had been collected in a pit and from condensate that had been stored in an improperly sealed tank.

The ensuing fireball could be seen far and wide and was so intense that the local fire department could do little but let it burn itself out, said Kenneth McDougan, chief of the West Middletown Fire Department, which responded.

When it fined Atlas $80,000 on Nov. 9, 2011, the state DEP said the fine was for violations of state law that required permits for the release of the flowback fluids that spilled onto the ground and the loss of integrity of the liner to the flowback fluid pit during the fire.

The federal EPA's $84,500 fine was for failure to properly store the condensate and to properly notify the West Middletown Fire Department of the large amount of hazardous chemicals that were stored on site in 2008 and 2009.

Atlas would not answer questions about the case Thursday, except to email a statement that said, in part, that it had "cooperated with the EPA and worked with an independent consultant to improve (environmental, health and safety) features on the site. Atlas has also agreed to install additional equipment on the location to further protect the environment."

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.