For most of us, cleaning up after oneself is a basic guideline for living and working with others. Taking responsibility for the environmental costs of products is an emerging business concept. Then there’s the oil and gas industry—which prefers a “you deal with it instead” approach to waste management.
The result? Tainted rivers downstream from wastewater treatment plants, earthquakes near injection wells, and radioactive drill cuttings in landfills. And then there are the giant pits where operators store millions of gallons of waste at a time.
The latest of Earthworks’ in-depth case studies associated with our recent report Blackout in the Gas Patch, details what the residents of McDonald, Pennsylvania, have been forced to live with since Range Resources built one such facility in a residential neighborhood.
The Carter Impoundment exemplifies all that can go wrong at centralized waste impoundments: frac fluid spills, constant odors, and soil erosion. It also illustrates how lax the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been in overseeing waste management—issuing permits after the facility was constructed and cutting the operator, Range Resources, considerable slack for incidents at the site.
Last week, DEP finally levied a record-breaking $4.15 million fine against Range Resources for causing soil and groundwater contamination at several centralized impoundments in Washington County. Five are being shut down. The Carter Impoundment can stay open but only be used to store freshwater—which is what it was designed for until Range decided it was more convenient to truck waste there from far and wide and violate local zoning laws. Then this week, court records revealed that DEP may have hidden evidence of a leak at one of the facilities and the resulting contamination of a private water supply.
Although DEP enforcement and legal revelations are welcome news, they come years after residents near the impoundments sounded the alarm about—and have been forced to live with—environmental and health impacts. They may well wonder now where all the waste that Range Resources continues to create will go. Earthworks and its partners have warned about the push by Range to simply replace impoundments with other polluting facilities nearby.
Like residents near the Carter Impoundment, many communities on the frontlines of oil and gas development can't choose to ignore the harm caused by ever-growing amounts of contaminated waste. Nor should the operators that profit from creating more dirty energy. It’s going to take many fines, the reversal of a gaping waste pollution loophole in US law, and much stronger regulations and oversight to force the industry to clean up after itself—or better yet, to stop making such a big and lasting mess in the first place.