A district court judge in Pennsylvania has ruled that ExxonMobil Corp. subsidiary XTO Energy Inc. will face criminal charges, finding that there is enough evidence for a full trial in a closely watched case to prosecute the company for several felonies.

Magisterial District Judge James G. Carn determined that XTO will be tried on five counts of unlawful conduct under Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law and three counts of unlawful conduct under the Solid Waste Management Act. His decision came after a preliminary hearing in December in which both the state and the company called witnesses (see Shale Daily, Dec. 19, 2013).

The charges were filed in September by Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who maintained that the company should be held liable for a 2010 wastewater spill at one of its drilling sites in the state (see Shale Daily, Sept. 12, 2013).

Grounds for the charges stemmed from a random state inspection on Nov. 16, 2010 at a north-central Pennsylvania drilling site where XTO was working on two wells. An inspector with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found an open valve on a wastewater storage tank that had discharged fluid containing toxic materials.

Tens of thousands of gallons of the waste were allegedly spilled. At issue in the case is who opened the valve, if anyone at all. XTO has called the charges “unwarranted” and “legally baseless,” claiming the incident was completely accidental.

The company paid a $100,000 fine and agreed to spend up to $20 million in a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The state believes that, regardless of intent, XTO should be held liable for the spill. Although the charges were hailed as bold by some, critics have called them misguided, believing they could send the wrong message to the state’s thriving oil and gas industry.

Carn made his ruling late last week and no date has been set for a trial.