Prove your humanity

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered Texas-based Range Resources to fix a Marcellus shale well that has polluted drinking water in Lycoming County since at least early 2012, and which the DEP had previously fined the company a then-record $8.9 million in 2015. Regulators quietly withdrew the fine several years later after reaching a settlement agreement with Range.

The DEP now says Range Resources continuously failed to correct issues caused by faulty well construction nine years ago at the Harman Lewis unit 1H well in Moreland Township. DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell says the agency has worked with the company in “good faith.”

“We expect companies to abide by our environmental laws and regulations and they must be held accountable if their work results in violations that negatively impact our environment,” McDonnell said in a statement. “Range Resources’ refusal at times to accept responsibility and finally address this problem is unacceptable and that is why DEP is issuing this order.”

In addition to the contamination that dates back to the well’s original 2011 construction, the DEP says the company tried to re-enter the well in 2016 but drilled outside the casing and created an open bore hole that remains.

“We have been working with Range Resources but have been met with sporadic cooperation, which will no longer be tolerated,” McDonnell said. “Through a rigorous investigation, DEP has determined that Range Resources is responsible for the leak and must take corrective actions as outlined in this order, which seeks to resolve this environmental issue once and for all.”

Range Resources originally drilled the well in the winter of 2011, and fracked it in June of that year. In January 2012, DEP began an investigation after learning of tainted water in the vicinity of the well. The agency concluded a bad cement job lead to methane migrating into private water wells as well as a nearby stream. DEP issued a notice of violation in September 2013, citing a faulty cement job. Despite that notice, DEP said at the time, Range refused to take responsibility as methane continued to flow into private drinking water supplies and a nearby stream.

In June 2015, DEP announced a plan to fine the company $8.9 million. At the time of the announcement, DEP says their inspectors saw methane bubbling up from the stream and killing vegetation in a farmer’s field.

In issuing the original fine, then DEP Secretary John Quigley said the agency took “seriously our responsibility to protect residents and Pennsylvania’s natural resources.”

Quigley was forced out as DEP secretary about a year later. The agency withdrew the fine about one week after his controversial departure. The move surprised many, including Quigley, who at the time said he knew nothing about the plan to withdraw the fine against Range Resources, something he should have known about as head of the agency.

DEP officials say the fine was withdrawn after Range Resources submitted plans to remediate the damage. But Tuesday’s order shows the agency believes the company did not keep to its side of the agreement.

Range Resources did not respond to requests for comment. The company has 60 days to submit a plan to halt the ongoing methane migration and fix the open bore hole.
The DEP said Range installed or paid for treatment for the water supplies that were affected. The company could appeal the fine to the Environmental Hearing Board, the DEP said.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.