Air pollution violations by companies in the natural gas industry have typically involved releases of pollutants or greenhouse gases from drilling sites or leaking pipelines. But recently, two trucking companies agreed pay $4.3 million in penalties for violating the Clean Air Act by disabling the emissions systems on their water hauling trucks.
Rockwater Northeast, based in Canonsburg, was charged by the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and has agreed to plead guilty to 31 counts of violating the Clean Air Act by tampering with the emissions systems on the same number of heavy-duty diesel “bottle trucks” that are used to carry water and wastewater to and from well pads being fracked.
The company installed aftermarket “defeat devices” that disabled the emissions diagnostic systems and company employees arranged with third parties to have the trucks pass annual safety inspections despite the tampered systems. Four current or former Rockwater employees and two vendors have also pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme that occurred in 2013 and 2014.
Select Energy Services, the successor to Rockwater since acquiring the parent company in 2017, also agreed to pay a $2.3 million penalty for modified emissions systems on 29 additional trucks owned by Rockwater. Select Energy Services has cooperated in the investigation and under the terms of a non-prosecution agreement, and will implement an environmental compliance program designed to prevent future violations and conduct annual audits.
“The defendants in this case knowingly and repeatedly installed ‘defeat devices’ to remove emissions controls in dozens of diesel trucks in violation of the Clean Air Act,” said Jennifer Lynn, Environmental Protection Agency Special Agent in charge of Pennsylvania criminal investigation division. She noted that the charges and penalties demonstrate that “EPA and our law enforcement partners are committed to enforcing our environmental laws.”
Why would companies tamper with emissions systems? The devices would force a truck’s engine to shut down or be able to operate only at a very low speed if it had a malfunctioning system, the criminal information states. Repairs can cost between $1,000 and $10,000 and keep a truck out of service for days or weeks.
In addition, Rockwater “obtained economic benefits, including fuel savings from improved fuel economy on modified vehicles; reduced expenditures on diesel exhaust fluids required to operate emissions systems components,” as well as reduced repair and maintenance costs and less lost revenue from out-of-service vehicles.
As a result of the tampering, the vehicles “emitted tons of excess emissions, including nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, into the atmosphere,” the complaint states. Nitrogen oxides can cause reduced lung function, increased asthma attacks and cardiovascular problems, according to the American Lung Association.