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EQT, Pennsylvania DEP At Odds Again Over Alleged Water Contamination

Pittsburgh-based EQT Corp. is again fighting the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over an order the agency issued last month to restore or replace water that was allegedly contaminated years ago by its drilling operations in Greene County.

In September, DEP said an investigation had discovered that EQT operations at the company's Hildebrand natural gas wells in Morgan Township had polluted a nearby spring, rendering it useless for the property owner, who was utilizing the water supply for agricultural crops and animals. DEP said in May 2010 drilling production fluids had escaped the pad's embankment and spilled into the spring.

But it wasn't until April 2012 that the landowner complained of the alleged pollution. DEP acted on the complaint by collecting water samples in 2013, according to the order. The results showed elevated levels of chloride, sulfate, barium, magnesium and dissolved solids, all of which DEP linked to drilling operations.

"Based on information obtained as of the date of this order, the water supply is polluted and no longer of adequate quality for the purposes served by the water supply," DEP said. The agency added that EQT has since failed to restore or replace the water and has not disproved that its operations contaminated the water. It ordered the company to restore or replace the supply and submit a detailed plan for doing so.

The cost of the order or any civil penalties that could follow is unclear. On Oct. 12, EQT appealed the order to the state's Environmental Hearing Board, saying it creates "obligations that are excessive, unreasonable, unlawful and beyond the department's statutory authority."

In its appeal, EQT argues that the water does not need to be restored because it is not used for human consumption and is "adequate for the purposes served." It also said there is no clear link between the alleged 2010 spill and the landowner complaint, leaving the order devoid of facts, "ambiguous" and "unreasonable." EQT added that the agency has also failed to describe its water standards for agricultural purposes.

Last year, EQT filed a complaint in the state Commonwealth Court against DEP challenging its interpretation of the Clean Streams Law (see Shale Daily, Oct. 7, 2014). That appeal came after DEP fined the company $4.53 million over a 2012 impoundment leak at one of its sites.

But while EQT's appeal of the agency's latest order is procedural, the DEP has moved with a harder hand against oil and gas industry violations this year. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf appointed DEP Secretary John Quigley shortly after he took office in January (see Shale Daily, Jan. 14). In an interview with NGI's Shale Daily in June after the DEP fined Range Resources Corp. a record-setting $8.9 million for its alleged failure to fix a faulty concrete job on a leaking natural gas well, Quigley said the industry was committing near-daily violations of the state's Clean Streams Law (see Shale Daily, June 16). He added that he would continue to review a backlog of cases to enforce compliance.

Both EQT and DEP must now file the necessary documents before a hearing next year to resolve the issues raised in the appeal.

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