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DEP seeks $4.5 million record fine against EQT for impoundment leak

| Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, 11:10 a.m.

State regulators are aiming to levy a record fine against another shale gas company for leaks in its wastewater ponds.

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection announced Tuesday that it has filed a civil complaint, seeking to fine Pittsburgh-based EQT Production Co. a record $4.5 million for a 2012 impoundment leak in Tioga County. If the state Environmental Hearing Board approves the fine, it would be the largest given to a shale gas driller in the state.

The Attorney General's Office is investigating the unit of EQT Corp. for the impoundment leaks and charged the company with two counts of polluting waters and one count of disturbing waterways. The misdemeanor charges each carry a $5,000 fine.

State officials claim EQT has not cooperated during the investigation and knowingly put fracking wastewater into ponds permitted only for freshwater.

“EQT fails to recognize the ongoing environmental harm from the significant amount of waste released by its leaking 6 million-gallon impoundment,” said Dana Aunkst, acting DEP secretary.

EQT hit back, arguing in a news release that it tried to work with state authorities and disputing the state's interpretation of Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Law.

The company filed a complaint against the state last month when it was unable to settle its liability case in the Tioga County impoundment leaks.

Lewis Gardner, EQT's attorney, criticized the $4.5 million fine in light of ongoing settlement negotiations.

“It is an utter waste of EQT and taxpayer resources for the parties to follow the usual administrative process while this fundamental legal issue is left unresolved by the courts,” he said.

Company spokeswoman Natalie Cox declined to comment on details of the case.

The complaint highlights questions about the industry's ongoing use of impoundment wells to store water used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking requires between 3 million and 5 million gallons of water, much of which returns to the surface laden with salt, heavy metals, and chemicals used in the fracking process.

“I think there's another question to look at, to say, ‘How and when are pits appropriate?' ” said Davitt Woodwell, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. “If they are, you need at least this standard of double liners and leak protection.”

Last month, the state fined Ft. Worth-based Range Resources Corp. $4.15 million for leaks in impoundment ponds in Washington County, prompting the company to invest in technology to make its wastewater ponds more leak-proof. The company employs double-liners and a computerized leak-detection system.

Environmental advocates dislike open-air impoundments, despite advances in technology.

“Open-air impoundments, in general, are always going to have problems,” said Myron Arnowitt, director of Clean Water Action in Pennsylvania. “There's no system without risk, (but) a closed-loop system that utilizes tanks is much better technology than digging a hole in the ground and putting down a plastic liner.”

According to the state, EQT applied for a permit to store fresh water in its impoundment in Duncan Township. After construction finished in 2011, the company instead stored flowback water from Marcellus drilling sites, the agency said. When inspectors detected elevated levels of chlorides — naturally occurring salts — in the impoundment, the company continued to add flowback water to it, according to the state.

EQT said it notified the state immediately upon discovering leaks in 2012 and has worked with officials since. The company said it removed contaminated soil related to the leaks and that sampling by an independent party shows it meets state standards.

The state claims that although the level of wastewater that was leaked is unknown, surface and groundwater show contamination. Monitoring and inspection of EQT's impoundment has cost the state $112,296, DEP said.

Katelyn Ferral is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5627 or kferral@tribweb.com.

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