Exxon Facing Criminal Charges for Fracking Fluid Dump


Exxon has been hit with criminal charges from the state of Pennsylvania for dumping nearly 60,000 gallons of wastewater from fracking wells into the environment without treating it. The company admits that it did so, but says it wasn’t negligent and therefore did not commit a crime.

Exxon Mobil Corp., the world’s largest energy company, was charged with illegally dumping more than 50,000 gallons (189,000 liters) of wastewater at a shale-gas drilling site in Pennsylvania.

Exxon unit XTO Energy Inc. discharged the water from waste tanks at the Marquandt well site in Lycoming County in 2010, according to a statement on the website of Pennsylvania’s attorney general. The pollution was found during an unannounced visit by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection…

“Criminal charges are unwarranted and legally baseless,” the XTO unit said yesterday in a statement posted on its website. “There was no intentional, reckless or negligent misconduct by XTO.”…

“Charging XTO under these circumstances could discourage good environmental practices,” the company said in its statement. “This action tells oil and gas operators that setting up infrastructure to recycle produced water exposes them to the risk of significant legal and financial penalties should a small release occur.”

The company said it “acted quickly” to clean up the spill and there was “no lasting environmental impact,” according to the statement.

This is a huge problem with fracking for natural gas and tar sands oil extraction. Both processes use huge amounts of water that comes out highly contaminated and very difficult to reclaim for any other use. And fracking companies in particular have bought off legislators and regulators in many states and at the federal level to protect the formula for the liquids they use in the process, leaving people (and even the government) in many states completely unaware of what is being leaked, deliberately or not.

With access to clean water being an inevitable and growing problem over the next few decades, the use of so much of it for these purposes needs much closer scrutiny.

Comments

  1. matty1 says

    I don’t get it. If they admit to dumping the water and aren’t denying that doing so was illegal aren’t the only options either negligence or intentional lawbreaking?

  2. tbp1 says

    I know it’s impossible to live with absolute purity in the world unless you manage, somehow, to get completely off the grid, hunt and raise your own food, don’t use gasoline or other petroleum products, generate your own electricity with a windmill, etc. (and even then maybe not), but I do draw a line somewhere. I haven’t bought a gallon of Exxon gas, at least not knowingly, since the Alaskan oil spill, nor a gallon of BP since the Gulf disaster, and won’t until they acknowledge their wrongdoing and pay up in full.

  3. says

    Regulation and laws aren’t needed. The Free Market will handle things like this on its own, as it did before Big Government got in the way. This corporate citizen so-called “knowingly dumps toxic shit” and the Market reacts by not purchasing from them, harming their bottom line, leading them to not so-called “pollute quite so much” in the future or even to go out of business entirely when better corporate citizens who don’t get caught so-called “ruining the water table” are rewarded by Knowledgeable Consumers and take their market share.

    We see the Invisible Hand of the Free Market in action every day: remember when BP so-called “destroyed the Gulf”? When was the last time you saw a BP-branded gas station? See? The Invisible Hand works.

  4. Orakio says

    Sandusky, Exxon, the refusal to defend gay discrimiation – Kane has graduated from a thorn in Corbett’s side to a dagger.

  5. eric says

    @1: my guess is that they are upset with the criminal part, not the negligence part. IOW, they were expecting to pay a fine, and instead got a threat of jail time.

  6. Ben P says

    I don’t get it. If they admit to dumping the water and aren’t denying that doing so was illegal aren’t the only options either negligence or intentional lawbreaking?

    The press release by the company is most likely quoting a statute, that says something to the effect that it may be a crime to “intentionally, recklessly or negligently” spill untreated waste water.

    The AG’s press release goes into more detail about what occured.

    Exxon had a 21,000 gallon storage tankon site to hold the wastewater. The hired a third party contractor to come in and process the waste water at the site. Then they ordered the contractor to move to a different site, but continued to pump waste water into the tank. (nb – the spill was 60k gallons ~3x the total capacity of the tank)

    If I put on my defense lawyer hat, they’re going to say the contractor is at fault because when they removed their processing equipment, they were supposed to shut the bottom plug on the tank, and that Exxon didn’t do anything wrong.

    The state will then counter with the “So really, you just kept pumping water into the tank and didn’t wonder why it wasn’t full?”

    I think that’s pretty clear negligence, probably not anything else. Whatever you think about Exxon, they are in business to make money, and usually try to avoid costing themselves money. The EPA ordered cleanup will probably already run them in the millions, and criminal fines could be millions more. So I doubt they intentionally dumped the waste water, but it’s a pretty spectacular fuckup.

  7. Ben P says

    Charging polluters for polluting could discourage polluters from not polluting.

    Sure.

    Their reasoning is going to be that this spill resulted from hiring someone to come in and clean up their wastewater, and if an “accidental spill” occurs during the process of cleaning up the wastewater results in the book getting thrown at them, well, they’ll just keep trucking it back to the big facility somewhere else.

  8. Abby Normal says

    Eric @6 is exactly right. The company has paid a $100,000 fine, which it says is fair and warranted. They just object to potential jail time. Evidently having to fork over half their Memorial Day weekend hookers & blow budget to the EPA is punishment enough.

  9. billyeager says

    As long as profits continue to be greater than the fines imposed, they aren’t considered punitive damages, they are merely business expenses.

  10. Trebuchet says

    @1: my guess is that they are upset with the criminal part, not the negligence part. IOW, they were expecting to pay a fine, and instead got a threat of jail time.

    It’s hard to put a corporation in jail. It’s just fines, all the way down.

  11. Ben P says

    Eric @6 is exactly right. The company has paid a $100,000 fine, which it says is fair and warranted. They just object to potential jail time. Evidently having to fork over half their Memorial Day weekend hookers & blow budget to the EPA is punishment enough.

    While this is an appealing line of reasoning, I don’t think it’s true.

    The likelihood of any individual going to jail for a spill like this is precisely nil.

    What Exxon is objecting to is having to pay more money, on top of what they paid the EPA.

    here’s the EPA settlement

    In short Exxon agreed to (1) pay a $100,000 civil penalty, (2) Spend approximately $20 million on injunctive efforts. Seperate from the Settlement, Exxon was ordered to remove 3000 tons of contaminated soil.

    Exxon’s position (naturally) is that the Federal EPA settlement should have taken care of everything, and the state has no reason to bother with filing its own charges.

  12. cry4turtles says

    Talk about PR, in Franklin PA the Brine Wastewater Treatment Plant has changed their name to “Fluid Recovery Facility”. Sooo funny! Like we wouldn’t notice!

  13. caseloweraz says

    The announcement of the EPA settlement is worth reading. Among other things, it remarks on the amount of solids this can prevent from entering Pennsylvania’s water supply:

    “EPA estimates that full implementation of the injunctive relief measures associated with this settlement will prevent approximately 263,574,926* pounds of total dissolved solids (TDS) from entering surface waters in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.”

    (*Like Spock, the EPA endeavors to be accurate.)

    That’s 264 million pounds of solids. In the surface waters of one state (one region of that state, probably.) From XTO treating just half of its waste water.

    (Sarcastic comment deleted.)

  14. caseloweraz says

    The XTO statement is worth reading also. It includes six pictures of the affected area, and basically says, “See? Plants are growing. There’s a corn crop. No long-term impact.”

    Riiggghhht…

  15. uzza says

    THANK GOD! When I first heard about this I thought it was terrorists attacking us with chemicals in our water supply.

  16. eric says

    Exxon’s position (naturally) is that the Federal EPA settlement should have taken care of everything, and the state has no reason to bother with filing its own charges.

    I don’t know how it works for big corporations, but that seems utterly at odds with law at the individual level. If Alice hits a car with Bob and Charlie in it, both Bob and Charlie may sue. Alice does not get out of Bob’s suit by saying “but I already cut a deal with Charlie!”

  17. Abby Normal says

    @Ben P, I think the truth is somewhere in between. They’ve been charged with three counts against Clean Streams Law, each with a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment, and five counts against Solid Waste Management Act, with up to five years imprisonment for each count. But I agree, the chance of anyone actually going to jail is next to nothing. The threat will be used in negotiating a settlement.

  18. Ben P says

    I don’t know how it works for big corporations, but that seems utterly at odds with law at the individual level. If Alice hits a car with Bob and Charlie in it, both Bob and Charlie may sue. Alice does not get out of Bob’s suit by saying “but I already cut a deal with Charlie!”

    That’s not quite right. I’ll give you two closer examples.

    Example 1 – Suppose Alice is drunk, gets in a wreck, damaging Bob and Charlie’s property, and flees the scene. Bob and Charlie know it was her, and know she was drunk. Alice knows, and doesn’t want them to make a criminal complaint, so calls them right away and reaches a deal to pay for all the damage she’s caused. She follows through. The prosecutor somehow finds out anyway, and files DWI charges. He sends subpoenas to Bob and Charlie with notice he’s going to call them to testify they knew Alice was drunk. Alice says “Why are you filing criminal charges? I already agreed to pay for all the damage?”

    Example 2 – Alice gets caught in possession of an amount of Methamphetamine just over the minimum threshold for sale. (say, 15g) The local prosecutor files charges for “Possession with intent to sell” but Alice’s lawyer reaches a plea deal for simple possession, Alice pays a fine and then goes home.

    Then the Federal AUSA comes in, and says “Alice, we know you work with Bob and Charlie, and we’re going to charge you under Federal Distribution of Methamphetamine Charges unless you tell us what you know about Bob and Charlie’s drug operation and testify against them in court.” Alice says “But the state already prosecuted me.”

  19. freehand says

    tbp1: I haven’t bought a gallon of Exxon gas, at least not knowingly, since the Alaskan oil spill, nor a gallon of BP since the Gulf disaster, and won’t until they acknowledge their wrongdoing and pay up in full.

    Hey. my wife and I have done the same thing! I do believe we have a boycott. Any day now they’re going to buckle under.

    Sigh.

  20. bushrat says

    @10 Come on, this is Exxon, $100,000 isn’t even enough money for the cab rides the hookers needed to get to the Memorial Day festivities.

  21. says

    Ben P:

    You seem to be a reasonably decent fellow–which scares the living fucking shit out of me (well, what would have been there BEFORE the “procedure” I enjoyed today). That is because I don’t think that Exxon hires reasonably decent fellows to do their legal work.

    I’m confident that Exxon’s top management will countenance the breaking of any laws, up to and including murder, as long as their lawyers and accountants can show them a computer model that proves that being prosecuted will cost them less than their profits would be. And those lawyers would defend Exxon to the death–or at least until the income stream is cut off.

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