Range Resources pleaded no contest last week to criminal charges that it was negligent in its oversight of two gas well sites in Washington County that both resulted in ground and water contamination.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the charges and plea on Friday resulting from a two-year grand jury investigation into environmental crimes committed by gas companies in the state.
The grand jury recommended charges for Range’s conduct at the Yeager wastewater storage impoundment in Amwell Township and the Brownlee drilling site in Buffalo Township. The company pleaded no contest to charges of disposal, processing, and storage of residual waste and unlawful conduct under the Solid Waste Management Act at both sites and to a prohibition against discharge of industrial wastes at the Brownlee site. The company will pay fines and make charitable contributions totaling $150,000, including $47,000 in fines to the Solid Waste Abatement Fund and a $100,000 contribution of the Washington County Watershed Alliance.
“In Pennsylvania, clean air and pure water is a constitutional right, yet too often frackers from across the country come to our Commonwealth, walk into our communities, and – sometimes without care or consequence – strip us of those basic rights,” Shapiro said in a video announcement.
The Yeager site has previously been the subject of a civil lawsuit filed by neighbors who claimed the fracking operation polluted their air and groundwater and led to ongoing health problems. It was settled for $3 million in 2018. The Yeager well site was the subject of “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. DEP has also previously fined Range over the Yeager site and other impoundments.
A drill cuttings pit and wastewater impoundment were built next to a hilltop well site in 2009 and problems followed almost immediately, according to the grand jury presentment. It determined that Range was aware of leaks in the liner, spills and the wastewater becoming overrun with bacteria, causing horrible smells that were treated with highly toxic chemicals.
At the Brownlee site, one wastewater storage tank that was among a group of 20 capable of containing nearly 300,000 gallons of fluid leaked and breached a containment liner, flowing downhill onto a neighboring farm and into Buffalo Creek. Range notified the property owner of the leak but gave him no information about harmful or hazardous chemicals in the wastewater. The company removed about 12,000 square feet of soil and about 100 trees from the property to remediate the spill.
“After the trees and soil were removed, the homeowner was left with an empty, ugly gully, almost one-third of an acre, in place of the woodlands that had previously existed. Over the course of several months, the homeowner inquired multiple times about getting his property regarded and planted. Only after the homeowner said he would contact the media did Range begin efforts to reclaim the area,” the grand jury presentment states. The leak also polluted Buffalo Creek with aluminum, iron and chlorides.
Range has completed full remediation at both sites, Range spokesman Mark Windle told the Observer-Reporter. He said Range has led the way in operational advancements over the past decade that have improved safety and sustainability.
“We stand behind our track record as a company that operates in a safe and sustainable manner, focusing on protecting our environment, our people and the communities where we work,” he told the newspaper.
The attorney general’s office also charged Cabot Oil and Gas for methane pollution that seeped from natural gas wells, contaminating the local water supply in Dimock, in northeastern Pennsylvania. That contamination has been the subject of multiple investigations and a documentary.
Shapiro said that his investigation into environmental crimes by natural gas companies is not over. “We are in the first stages of a long process to hold the well-connected accountable and meet the promise of our constitution to protect our environment for generations to come,” he stated.