News Feature | September 30, 2013

State Charges Exxon Mobil Unit For Toxic Wastewater Leak On Fracking Site

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

An Exxon Mobil subsidiary may have allowed huge amounts of toxic drilling wastewater to escape a fracking site in Pennsylvania and contaminating a creek.

That's according to an accusation from Pennsylvania State Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who announced this month she is pressing charges against a unit of Exxon Mobil known as XTO Energy.

Produced water is a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, "which involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture shale rock and release oil and gas. Much of the water returns to the surface after fracking is complete, and is often placed in holding tanks for recycling," Reuters reported

XTO had trouble with its tanks. "Three years ago, the site contained about 50 steel storage tanks, parked side by side, including some that held toxic drilling wastewater to be treated and recycled. The state says that more than 50,000 gallons - about 10 tractor-trailer loads - leaked through an open valve, flowed through a ditch, and polluted an unnamed creek," according to The Philadelphia Inquirer

The attorney general's office provided some background, explaining that natural gas wells produce wastewater that is thick with toxic substance, including chlorides, barium, strontium and aluminum.

XTO Energy is making a vocal defense in the media and in the courts.

"Criminal charges are unwarranted and legally baseless because neither XTO nor any of its employees intentionally, recklessly, or negligently discharged produced water on the site," XTO said in a statement.

The decision to file criminal charges came as a surprise to many. Environmentalists saw it as "a departure from the soft treatment they say the industry has received from Pennsylvania regulators," The Inquirer said in a different report

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection had already been active on the issue following a grand jury investigation. "As a result of the spill, DEP required more than 3,000 tons of contaminated soil to be excavated and removed from the Marquardt site," The Patriot News reported

Regulators discovered the problem in the first place. Three years ago, a DEP official "inspected a site where XTO Energy was storing drilling wastewater in 49 mobile storage tanks for recycling." The official allegedly "found a tank had its rear valve open, and wastewater was flowing into Sugar Run, a tributary of the Susquehanna," E&E News reported

For more fracking coverage from Water Online, click here.