WHEELING - By pleading guilty Friday, Chesapeake Appalachia must pay a $600,000 fine for violating the federal Clean Water Act during the company's natural gas drilling and fracking in Wetzel County.
"The defendant illegally filled at least three sensitive wetlands; in one instance, obliterating a natural waterfall. This plea agreement demonstrates that those who illegally fill in or destroy these essential natural resources will be prosecuted," said David McLeod Jr., special agent for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's criminal enforcement program in West Virginia.
Chesapeake Appalachia is the local operating division of Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy. The company will pay $200,000 for each of three separate violations from late-2008. These included discharging 60 tons of crushed stone and gravel into Blake Fork in rural Wetzel County, about 2.4 miles north of the intersection of W.Va. 89, near Proctor. In doing so, the company removed a waterfall to construct a road to facilitate its drilling and fracking operations.
Blake Fork and three other streams affected by Chesapeake's drilling activities are tributaries of Fish Creek, which flows into the Ohio River.
"Chesapeake Appalachia remains fully committed to regulatory compliance and promptly instituted additional training and oversight to help ensure that our regulatory obligations are met," the company said in a statement acknowledging the plea.
Working in cooperation with U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld and his assistants, McLeod said his agency has been investigating Chesapeake's Wetzel County actions for more than two years.
"This matter is the first Marcellus Shale related prosecution, and one of only a handful of criminal investigations, under the U.S. EPA's 2011 Energy Extraction Initiative. We will continue to vigorously investigate allegations of illegal activities relating to energy extraction in the mid-Atlantic states," McLeod said.
"Furthermore, this case will be the highest criminal penalty relating to energy extraction, to date, should the agreed upon penalty be so ordered."
Pending U.S. District Judge Frederick P. Stamp Jr.'s acceptance of the plea agreement, the company will also receive two years of court supervised probation. Ihlenfeld said Chesapeake as a whole - rather than a specific individual - will be supervised during the probation, noting it is not unusual for a company to be given probation as a penalty.
Ihlenfeld and McLeod said Chesapeake is responsible because the company: selected the location for an access road to a site associated with its drilling activities; hired construction contractors to discharge; spread rock and gravel in Blake Fork in order to develop access to the Hohman Pit; and supervised and directed the work of the construction contractors.
Even though the Blake Fork waterfall has since been restored at Chesapeake's expense, Ihlenfeld said it is still vital to enforce the Clean Water Act.
"You cannot rob a bank, bring the money back and say, 'Forgive me,'" he said after the hearing. "Companies need to be held accountable for violating the Clean Water Act."
"Our nation's wetlands play a critical role in maintaining water quality, reducing flood damage, and providing habitat for fish and wildlife," McLeod added when asked about the need to uphold the law.
The Clean Water Act specifically prohibits the discharge of any pollutant from a point source into the waters of the United States without a permit. Discharges of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States are prohibited, unless authorized by a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Ihlenfeld said in this case, Chesapeake failed to obtain or even apply for such a permit.
Additionally, the parties have agreed that separate violations committed by Chesapeake in Marshall and Wetzel Counties would be addressed by civil penalties and not via criminal charges.
"The events at Blake Fork were more egregious than the others - that's why they were classified as criminal," McLeod said.
The other alleged violations still under EPA investigation to be addressed with civil penalties are the impoundment of an unnamed tributary to Laurel Run between January 2007 and December 2009; constructing the Gordon Stansberry well pad took place about 2.2 miles north of W.Va. 89, near New Martinsville. This project also included the burial of an underground pipeline; and building the Chesapeake "B" well pad, along with the widening of Lynn Camp Road, also located north of W.Va. 89.