Washington County gas drilling spill cited in lawsuit not reported to state
State officials are investigating whether a drilling contractor working in Washington County failed to report a 2010 wastewater spill that — if it did happen — would have been among the biggest of Western Pennsylvania's gas boom.
Red Oak Water Transfer LLC dithered for days about reporting a spill that put 500 barrels of black wastewater directly into an environmentally sensitive Washington County stream, according to an internal email filed as part of a lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed by several families in Amwell against Range Resources Corp. and its contractors over contamination. Lawyers for the families argued in a motion on Friday that Red Oak, a Range Resources contractor, is withholding pictures of the spill.
Both companies have disputed that the spill happened. The state Department of Environmental Protection appears to have no record that it was reported or investigated, though an agency spokesman said he cannot yet confirm that for certain.
“I hesitated to contact Range due to the contentious relationship between our two companies this past week,” Richard Hoffman, a regional safety director for Red Oak, wrote to a company executive four days after he said the spill happened. “If this incident is reported to Range, it could be the end of our business relationship. That has to be your call.”
Hoffman's email on Dec. 10, 2010, said he and another worker investigated the site in Amwell, and they “think” at least 500 barrels of “flowback” spilled from a failed pipeline, that one worker told others at the site to “keep this quiet” and that workers at the scene never reported the spill to management or Range Resources.
It never mentions any reporting to the DEP, which is required immediately. Only one worker there was willing to talk to them on the record about what happened, he said.
The motion does not include any emails or reports that were in response to Hoffman's email. An employee at the company later said in a deposition that he found no evidence the spill had happened and did not make any report of his investigation, according to a transcript included in the motion.
Hoffman and the executives he emailed did not respond to requests for comment. An executive at Red Oak's successor company, Rockwater Energy Solutions Inc., said the company will file a response to the motion in court on Thursday. Its policy is not to give details to reporters before a filing, said Paul Pistono, senior vice president at Houston headquarters.
The plaintiffs' lead attorney, John M. Smith also declined to comment.
Smith filed the case in May 2012 for three families who claim they were exposed to carcinogens and suffered health problems because of Range Resources Corp.'s drilling operations in Amwell. Range Resources has denied those claims.
Smith obtained the Red Oak documents as part of the lawsuit. Smith's motion Friday included a hand-written personnel record for the worker who allegedly told other workers to keep the incident quiet. It says he was suspended for a “cover up of flow back water,” but doesn't say if that was for the spill Hoffman described.
Range Resources investigated a “rumored” spill at the same Amwell site about the same time and found no impacts, company spokesman Matt Pitzarella said.
“It would be impossible for anyone to have even pulled this off, just based on the logistics alone,” he said. “We have a high degree of confidence in this company, but if any contractor or employee withheld information, there would be consequences.”
The only call the DEP received from that area at the time of the spill was on Dec. 9, said John Poister, the agency's spokesman in Pittsburgh.
A DEP inspector that day found a one- to two-barrel leak of wastewater on a pipe coming from the nearby Yeager Impoundment, records show. Range agreed in April 2012 to pay a $18,025 combined penalty for that incident and other brine and drilling fluid leaks at properties in that area of Amwell in 2010 and 2011, state records show. The DEP is doing an internal investigation to find out if its staff looked into reports of the larger 500 barrel spill when it did inspections for those other problems nearby, Poister said.
“We don't know that there was a 500-barrel spill at all. That's what we want to clear up,” he said. “
DEP policy requires oil and gas companies and their contractors to immediately report any spills that threaten the state's waterways.
Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.