XTO Energy to Spend $3 Million to Restore Wetlands, Streams Damaged by Fracking

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By Andrea Vittorio

Dec. 22 — A subsidiary of ExxonMobil, the nation's largest holder of natural gas reserves, will spend an estimated $3 million to restore eight sites in West Virginia damaged by unauthorized discharges of fill material into streams and wetlands associated with hydraulic fracturing operations, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department announced Dec. 22.

XTO Energy Inc. also will implement a plan to ensure compliance with federal and state water protection laws at the company’s West Virginia oil and gas extraction facilities that use horizontal drilling methods, according to an agreement proposed to resolve legal claims brought by the federal government.

XTO focuses on oil and natural gas production, including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations along the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The company was constructing well pads and other facilities related to natural gas extraction when it allegedly discharged sand, dirt, rocks and other fill material into more than 5,300 linear feet of stream and 3.38 acres of wetlands without a federal Clean Water Act permit, according to the federal government's complaint.

Restoration Work Expected

Under the proposed consent decree lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia, XTO agreed to restore all sites where restoration is feasible. It will submit restoration plans to the EPA for approval and will monitor all restored sites for up to 10 years.

The company also will perform compensatory mitigation to offset permanent impacts to aquatic resources at some sites.

“We have been and are continuing to work expeditiously on the restoration of impacted areas,” XTO spokeswoman Suann Guthrie said in an e-mail. “Our priority is, and will remain, to protect the environment and wildlife in areas in which we operate.”

The EPA discovered some of the violations through information provided by the state and through routine joint inspections conducted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. XTO also voluntarily disclosed potential violations at five of the sites following an internal audit.

One of Largest Penalties Imposed 

XTO has agreed to pay an additional $2.3 million in penalties to resolve alleged violations of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which prohibits the filling of wetlands, rivers, streams and other waters of the U.S. without a permit from the corps.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) will receive half of the $2.3 million civil penalty for alleged violations of state law.

The EPA says the penalty is one of the largest civil penalties for unauthorized discharges of dredged and/or fill material under the Clean Water Act.

“Wetlands and streams serve important roles in the aquatic ecosystem by supporting aquatic life and wildlife. Wetlands also play a valuable role in recharging our groundwater and drinking water supplies, and reducing flood risks,” EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin said in a statement. “This case sends a clear message that EPA and other federal and state regulatory agencies will do what is necessary to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act and to protect these valuable resources and the health of our communities.”

Compliance Program Planned 

The consent decree also directs XTO to implement a compliance program for Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, including training for employees, contractors and affiliates working at oil and gas facilities in West Virginia.

The compliance program also requires XTO to consult a qualified wetlands professional before submitting permit applications to the necessary West Virginia agencies for well pads, impoundments or associated access roads.

The company also must prepare an alternatives analysis, design facilities to avoid and minimize impacts to aquatic resources and implement construction techniques that are certified by a registered professional engineer.

The consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period and court approval.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The proposed consent decree filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia in United States of America v. XTO Energy, Inc. is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/United_States_of_America_et_al_v_XTO_Energy_Inc_Docket_No_114cv00.