Journalism in the Public Interest

PA Officials Issue Largest Fine Ever to Gas Driller

Chesapeake Energy is fined more than $1 million after contaminating water supplies in Bradford County.


A drilling rig in Pennsylvania. (Wikimedia Commons)

Pennsylvania officials fined Chesapeake Energy more than $1 million on Tuesday, the state’s largest fine ever to an oil and gas company. In a statement, the Department of Environmental Protection said Chesapeake’s drilling operations had contaminated water supplies for 16 families in Bradford County.

The announcement came just days after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett, who took office in January, has issued far fewer environmental fines than its predecessor.

“It is important to me and to this administration that natural gas drillers are stewards of the environment, take very seriously their responsibilities to comply with our regulations, and that their actions do not risk public health and safety or the environment,” DEP Secretary Mike Krancer said in the statement on Tuesday.

The fine also cited Chesapeake for a fire at a well site that injured three workers in February. The announcement didn’t mention the blowout at a Chesapeake well in Bradford County last month. That accident leaked a still-undisclosed amount of brine and hydraulic fracturing fluid onto nearby fields and into a creek. The department issued Chesapeake a notice of violation for that incident and is continuing to investigate.

The DEP said the water contamination in Bradford County, which occurred last year, was caused by failures in the casing and cement that surround gas wells, allowing methane to leak into water wells from shallow gas formations. Chesapeake issued a statement saying the company agreed to pay for water treatment for the affected families. The company also said it has enhanced its casing and cementing designs.

“We have worked in coordination and cooperation with the PADEP from the moment we learned a potential problem existed,” Chesapeake spokesman Brian Grove said in the statement. Grove added that although the company has agreed to settle the matter, it hasn’t admitted that it caused the contamination.

The DEP has been under increasing pressure from critics and the federal government to tighten its oversight of the gas industry. Last month, the department asked drilling companies to voluntarily stop sending their wastewater to treatment facilities that discharge the waste into rivers after only partial treatment. But that move only prompted further federal involvement. Last week the EPA ordered the largest drilling companies in the state to disclose where they plan to put the wastewater, indicating that agency officials saw the state’s voluntary request as inadequate.

“Since there was not a requirement that they notify DEP or EPA of the new disposal methods, we wanted to ensure that we all had this information,” EPA spokeswoman Terri White wrote in an email last week. “We want to track these wastewater activities regularly to ensure the protection of public health and the environment."

The EPA also asked the DEP to improve the way it tests wastewater discharges.

So, is the DEP sending a message with the Chesapeake fine? The department hasn’t returned our request for comment yet, but in the statement Sec. Krancer said, “The water well contamination fine is the largest single penalty DEP has ever assessed against an oil and gas operator, and the Avella tank fire penalty is the highest we could assess under the Oil and Gas Act. Our message to drillers and to the public is clear.”

$1,088,000 may be the largest amount the PA DEP has ever fined a company, but considering Chesapeake pulled in $1.6 BILLION in the first quarter of 2011, I’d say it’s more like a slap on the wrist.

It seems curious that this article does not explicitly state that the contamination is the result of fracking.  Is that not the case?

I would not be surprised if the Associated Press or FoxNews deliberately avoided naming hydrofracturing in articles on its effects—but ProPublica? Surely not.  Mr. Kusnetz, can you please clarify?  Thank you.

Kudos to DEP for standing up on its hind legs! 1 mil for polluting 16 households’ water supply? Try that in NJ - but NJ doesn’t allow hydrofracking, does it? I know we could all use extra income, since the government(s) emasculated our industrial base and gave our future to a few bloated Wall St. favored friends.

Jackie: The contamination wasn’t the result of fracking. It was the result of faulty cement casings. This was the same problem with Cabot’s wells in Dimock. In both cases, it appears the contamination occurred before hydrofracking.. Re: the article: “The DEP said the water contamination in Bradford County, which occurred last year, was caused by failures in the casing and cement that surround gas wells, allowing methane to leak into water wells from shallow gas formations.” It was methane that leaked, not frack fluid.

In any event, the contamination is the result of attempts to develop shale gas. The point is that process of shale gas development appears to be extremely dangerous. Fracking is only one phase or component of that development process.

Wake up Pennsyvania and the others that read this article.

This is another example of Industry buying politicians for short money.

Example: you make $1.6 BILLION and you give back $1.0 MILLION.

Thats a real good deal,  even at Walmart. Walmart hands you $1,600.00 and you hand over $1.00 on your way out the door.

Because the general public can’t fathom numbers in real time, the FOX NEWS viewer believes his political representative are doing their jobs.

Thanks to the US Supreme Court’s “CITIZENS UNITED v. FEDERAL ELECTIONS COMMISSION”, the money that goes from Chesapeake to the people that made this fraudulent $1.0 MILLION fine happen in government, will be hidden.

Great work Mr. Alieto, Mr. Thomas, Mr. Robets, Mr. Scalia, Mr. Kennedy,  you did good for your friends.

Is Halliburton pouring the cement for the casings?

Juanita Sneeuwjagt

May 18, 2011, 3:05 p.m.

Way to go Alieto, Thomas, Robets, Scalia and Kennedy.  Keep the pressure on gas industry and the funding for EPA to do it’s job.  You would cry if you saw the destruction of surface and contamination of water in VA Appalachias, not to mention the outright stealing of the people’s resources, all via political VA and the rubber stamping of permits and “modifications” by the VA Gas and Oil Board.  This board is appointed by the VA governor and is stacked against the people’s correlative rights.  Regulation of gas industry in VA is a joke, but we’re not laughing.  NOTHING is done by government to assist the good mountain people who have been beaten down, tramped on and spat on for more than two centuries.  I have no grant money, but take from my pocket to help these people and although I am now 72 years old, will take my last breath fighting against this corruption. One million dollars is but a slap on the wrist, but is better than nothing.  Keep fighting!

The oil boys break even at $7 dollars…Wall Street projects $15 dollars…$30 billion invested…but the Russians have re-filled their big “World” Pipeline…Natural Gas @ $4.25…What gives??

Plus this process is “Kill ya, dirty!” and will use up every drop of drinkable water in North America!

The message I get from this paltry fine is that the perpetrators got away with it. That is not enough to pay for the total depreciation if the properties of 16 families, not to mention this attempted murder of them.
Nobody will be able to sell an inch of land in that area for a long time, and there will be no usable water so it cannot be inhabited. The damage is enormous. When all the gas is drilled out, large swaths of our nation will be wasteland where people do not go, and our transportation will be primitive because republicans in exchange for money put all our eggs in fossil fuel’s cart.

Brady Russell - Clean Water Action

May 26, 2011, 2:51 p.m.

I can’t believe we are still having an argument about what ‘fracking’ is in these comments. The the general public, “fracking” is absolutely everything that goes into a deep shale drilling operation. Industry friends and fans can play PR lawyer all they want, people see it all as one activity. As they should.

I love that Chesapeake is refusing to admit fault here.

Anyway, the first point is right: we’d need a million dollar fine on a quarter of all Chesapeake’s sites before it really started to phase them.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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