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It’s always heartening to see an irresponsible oil or gas operator get caught for wrongdoing. But usually breaking all the rules results only in a reprimand or a fine too small to deter future bad behavior.

So this week’s news was happily surprising: Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Kathleen Kane has brought criminal charges against XTO Energy for the November 2010 release of toxic wastewater from a storage tank into a tributary of the Susquehanna River. And this just two months after the US Environmental Protection Agency agreed with XTO that the company should pay a $100,000 penalty and $20 million in wastewater management activities for the spill.

XTO lost no time in complaining, insisting in an official statement that the Attorney General was abusing her power and that “neither XTO nor any of its employees intentionally, recklessly, or negligently discharged produced water on the site.” In a burst of magical thinking, XTO also claims that 50,000 gallons of contaminant-laden fluid spilling onto soil and into water “did not result in significant or lasting environmental harm.”

Well, as is said in a democracy (and on the PA Attorney General’s website), anyone charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. XTO will have its day in court and opportunity for exoneration.

Yet in any criminal case, a defendant’s background and prior history of similar infractions is considered. So XTO will have a lot of explaining to do:

  • XTO is among the top ten oil and gas violators in Pennsylvania and has been cited by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for a steadily increasing number of violations in the last few years.
  • The wastewater release was not the only problem to occur at the Marquardt well site in Lycoming County. According to the DEP compliance database, in 2009 violations were also issued there for inadequate erosion and sedimentation controls; faulty impoundment construction; and improper encapsulation of waste. (As if burying drilling waste underground is ever a good idea—but that’s another blog post.)
  • Three months before the spill, XTO received a prescient citation for not adopting adequate pollution prevention measures and creating a danger of pollution.
  • Around the same time as the spill, DEP discovered that an impoundment was structurally unsound and a well had faulty cement casing; several months later, a violation was issued for failing to report the casing problem to the DEP.

That’s an impressive lineup of past violations, even before the current criminal charges were made, for one operator at one site. But more egregious are all the risky practices and polluting events that are left undocumented and unpunished, including perhaps at the majority of Pennsylvania wells—86% in 2011 according to Earthworks research—that the DEP never even inspects.

Many people welcomed the Attorney General’s and EPA’s bold moves against XTO and are waiting for the DEP to finally take enforcement action of its own. We’re also more than ready to cheer on greater and more consistent accountability for polluters, across Pennsylvania and every other drilled and damaged state in the nation.