US Sues Exxon Fracker in Pennsylvania Over Polluted Drinking Water

News & Politics

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (CN) - The United States sued Exxon subsidiary XTO Energy, claiming its hydraulic fracking has polluted public drinking waters in Pennsylvania with toxic wastes.

The federal lawsuit was filed almost simultaneously with reports from ABC , CBS and The Associated Press that claimed a "landmark federal study" showed "no evidence that chemicals from the natural gas drilling process moved up to contaminate drinking water aquifers at a western Pennsylvania drilling site."

Both the "landmark" study and the federal lawsuit involve fracking in the Marcellus Shale formation.

The results of the study, done on a contract from the Department of Energy, were called preliminary. It alleged that the toxic chemicals that oil companies injected into the ground to force natural gas or oil out of it stayed below the aquifer from which Pennsylvanians pump drinking water.

But in the lawsuit, the United States cites XTO's natural gas well pad and storage facility in Hughesville, Lycoming County, for unauthorized discharges of flowback fluid and produced fluid.

Fracking is a big issue in energy-producing Pennsylvania, though a complacent Legislature has bent over to muzzle public debate on it.

One year ago, a physician sued the state , claiming it passed an unconstitutional "Medical Gag Rule" that prohibited him and other doctors from talking about the effects of fracking on public heath.

Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez called Act 13 of 2012 a gift from the Legislature to polluting energy drillers.

At the behest of the industry, Act 13 aka House Bill 1050 called the toxic slurry injected into the ground in fracking a "trade secret," and barred Rodriguez and other doctors from talking publicly about it. Gov. Thomas Corbett signed the bill into law on Valentine's Day 2012.

In his lawsuit, Rodriguez, a kidney specialist, called the trade-secret claim ridiculous, as well as unconstitutional. He said he has patients who need clean drinking water for their kidney diseases, and that he had "recently treated patients directly exposed to high-volume hydraulic fracturing fluid as the result of well blowouts, including a patient exposed to hydraulic fracturing fluid who was admitted to the hospital with a complicated diagnosis with low platelets, anemia, rash and acute renal failure that required extensive hemodialysis and exposure to chemotherapeutic agents."

The trade-secret claim is shaky, at best. It's well known that frackers inject byproducts of the drilling process into rock formations to crack them, and give natural gas a way to escape. Any liquid at all would do the trick.

Rodriguez claimed that abiding by the Medical Gag Rule would violate his professional oath and responsibilities. That litigation is continuing.

In its recent complaint, the United States claims a state inspector observed and documented pollutants as they were released from XTO tanks and valves used in hydraulic fracturing, to flow through the aquifer into public water.

XTO Energy is based in Fort Worth, Texas.

In its lawsuit, the United States says a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit may be issued to authorize pollutant discharge into federal waters but only on the condition that all discharges meet applicable Clean Water Act requirements, which is not the case for the Lycoming County well.

Liquid injected into the wells during fracking generates a byproduct known as flowback fluid, and wastewater byproduct from the production of natural gas liquid is called produced fluid.

According to the complaint, "flowback fluid and produced fluid contain brine, proppant, hydraulic fracturing chemicals, dissolved solids, heavy metals and radionuclides."

The complaint continues: "At its facility, defendant stored the flowback fluid and produced fluid in portable tanks, known as Baker Tanks, to be recycled and then reused in its fracturing operations at various wells throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Defendant used mobile treatment equipment to recycle the produced water from the Baker Tanks and at times stored produced water to be transported off site to be recycled, so that the produced water can be reused.

"On November 16, 2010, a state inspector conducted an inspection at the Facility. At this time, defendant had approximately 57 Baker Tanks on the well pad at the northwest side of the facility, each having a capacity of 21,000 gallons. Defendant did not have the mobile treatment equipment at the facility on this date.

"It was raining heavily during the inspection on November 16, 2010, and rainfall records in the area show that it rained before the inspection and continued after the inspection.

"The state inspector observed an open valve on a 21,000 gallon Baker Tank. The contents of the Baker Tank were being released to the ground. The Baker Tank was connected internally to five other Baker tanks, all of which stored flowback fluid and produced fluid. The flowback fluid and produced fluid stored in the tanks contained, among other things: barium, calclium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium, strontium, bromide, chloride, total dissolved fluids.

"The flowback fluid and produced fluid released from the Baker Tank flowed overland to the drainage basin for the Lower Branch of the Susquehanna River. It also drained through the surface soils and into groundwater, which was then released in seeps to a spring and in unnamed tributary known as Tributary 19617."

The complaint says the fluids "entered the fracture system," and "recharged groundwater over time ... . Sampling conducted after the release into Tributary 19617 and the unnamed spring showed that for up to sixty-five days pollutants associated with natural gas extraction, such as total dissolved solids, strontium, barium, bromides and chloride, were present."

The tributary feeds Sugar Run stream and Muncy Creek before flowing into the Susquehanna River, all three of which are perennial, navigable waters and protected from pollution by the Clean Water Act.

Uncle Sam seeks civil penalties of up to $37,500 per day for each violation after Jan. 12, 2009, and an injunction against further Clean Water Act violations. 

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