Well Site

A Seneca Resources well pad in Jones Township, Elk County.

ST. MARYS — The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced Monday that Seneca Resources Corp. has agreed to a $375,000 civil penalty for oil and gas violations of the Clean Stream Law, Dam Safety & Encroachment Act, the Oil & Gas Act, and the Solid Waste Management Act.

Beginning in August 2013 through 2015, DEP inspected various areas of construction in Forest, McKean, and Elk counties and determined that multiple violations, including:

  • Discharge of an estimated 500 barrels of flowback fluid generated from a valve failure to the ground and surrounding wetlands in Forest County;
  • Discharge of an estimated 70 to 100 barrels of crude oil which flowed across land then into a tributary of Windfall Run, a high quality cold water fishery in McKean County;
  • Failure to follow the approved water management plan for 105 days in McKean County when Seneca withdrew water during a drought watch;
  • And failure to comply with the conditions of the Erosion Control Permit and maintain best management practices during earth moving activities.

“Sediment is a major cause of stream impairment in Pennsylvania. DEP inspectors are diligent about inspecting construction activities to ensure operators are meeting permit conditions and regulatory requirements,” said DEP acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “This penalty is reflective of DEP’s commitment to enforcing those conditions and requirements.”

Seneca has resolved all the violations identified in the civil penalty, according to a press release from DEP.

“The final penalty was an agreement reached through a Civil Assessment of Civil Penalty (CACP) between the Department and Seneca. The Department routinely seeks voluntary settlements to reflect the value of avoiding litigation,” DEP spokeswoman Melanie Williams said Tuesday. “Further, the Department follows guidelines when determining penalties.”

When asked, Williams said that the DEP does not provide for the civil penalties it collects to be passed onto the local communities impacted.

Seneca spokesman Rob Boulware said of the civil penalty, “This consent assessment was related to a number of separate incidents from 2013 to 2016. During that time, DEP conducted a total of 2,807 inspections of Seneca’s well sites and only 2.3 percent of those inspections identified violations of any kind.”

He went on to say the fine was largely related to a valve on a storage tank for a conventional oil well that failed due to severe cold temperatures and the other a valve that was damaged by a winch line.

“Neither incident resulted in significant impacts to the environment and both have been fully remediated,” Boulware said.

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Williams of DEP said, “The most significant impact was to the tributary to Windfall Run associated a discharge in McKean County...This was considered an acute short term impact, with no long term, permanent impact to the resource.”

Williams explained that when Seneca became aware of the spill they began capturing the crude below the discharge site to minimize the impacts. As part of the clean-up efforts they monitored the tributary until February 2016.

Williams added that the majority of the Owls Nest spill in Forest County was captured before it left the well site and was considered to be a moderate short term impact to the wetland.

Attempts to contact the conservation districts in Forest and McKean counties were unsuccessful.

According to DEP’s oil and gas violation database, between August 2013 to the present, Seneca has received seven violations for its operations in McKean County and nine violations in Forest County, all of which were closed upon compliance. Those violations ranged in severity from administrative issues such as failing to submit well records, to environmental issues like failing to report pollution incidents.

Seneca, the exploration and production segment of National Fuel Gas Company, is one of the largest natural gas producers in the state of Pennsylvania.

Since 2005, Seneca has had 654 violations and 236 enforcements as a result of 6,979 inspections of 1,760 wells.

The total penalties assessed for the period from 2014 until now is $447,000, DEP confirmed. That total includes the recent $375,000 penalty, as well as a penalty assessed in 2014 for erosion and sedimentation control violations in McKean County and an additional $40,000 in 2015 for erosion and sedimentation violations in Lycoming County.

“It’s not surprising,” said Mike Kamandulis, a retired earth science teacher and member of the local advocacy group, Elk County Citizens Advocating Responsible Environmental Stewardship.

“But the fact that Seneca Resources is getting all up tight and suing Highland Township (for attempting to ban the company’s proposed disposal injection well) and appealing St. Marys’ zoning ordinance (which limits oil and gas development within the city) while they back behind the curtains they’re doing all of this nefarious stuff –it just isn’t right.”

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