A release of approximately 40,000 gallons of oil and gas operations waste into a Youngstown, Ohio area storm drain flowing into the Mahoning River is igniting a call for tighter regulatory oversight and more transparent emergency response practices by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). ODNR investigators confirmed the release shortly after receiving an anonymous tip on January 31, when they claim to have observed employees of Hard Rock Excavating (Hard Rock) dumping oilfield waste and brine produced by hydraulic fracturing operations into a storm sewer located at its headquarters.

In addition to initiating civil and criminal investigations, the state is pursuing a variety of regulatory enforcement actions against Hard Rock and D&L Energy Group (D&L), an affiliated oil and gas exploration and production outfit. The measures include denial of D&L’s pending injection well permit applications and revocation of its six current permits, cessation of D&L’s Ohio injection well and temporary storage operations and revocation of Hard Rock’s brine hauling permit.  

State legislators from both parties and environmental advocates have expressed outrage over the incident, and are directing blame at the state’s enforcement efforts and response practices. One of the most outspoken, state representative Robert Hagan (D-Youngstown), released a letter  accusing the OEPA and ODNR of conducting a secretive response, keeping local officials “in the dark” as the events transpired. In addition, noting Ohio’s relatively stringent and comprehensive oil and gas regulations, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) indicated in a statement that the incident highlights the need for robust enforcement of the state’s oil and gas compliance regime.  At least one Ohio environmental group has, however, questioned the capacity of Ohio’s agencies to oversee regulatory compliance by the consistently growing industry throughout the state.

We will continue to monitor the OEPA and ODNR enforcement efforts and the agencies’ responses to the scrutiny of their oversight and response practices. 

Press coverage of the incident can be found here, here, here and here.

 In the wake of these events, the proper management of oil and gas waste streams is likely to be a closely scrutinized enforcement priority in Ohio.  Operators should ensure that they have in place and are implementing effective and adequately communicated processes, procedures and plans to prevent and promptly respond to releases and to ensure the proper management and disposal of all waste streams associated with their business. Members of BakerHostetler’s Environmental and Energy Practice Team have extensive experience working with clients to develop these processes, procedures and plans, including the auditing to ensure that they are being property implemented.  We understand the urgency of many environmental situations and have an Emergency Response Team serving clients nationwide, with attorneys on call 24 hours a day (1.216.621.0200)  and available to be dispatched to an incident site immediately following notification of a problem. Our Emergency Response Team responds to chemical plant explosions, industrial accidents, release of chemicals to the environment and similar emergencies. These situations often involve environmental reporting, enforcement and cleanup requirements and sensitive public relations issues, and can result in class action and toxic tort litigation, OSHA investigations, white collar criminal investigations and wrongful death and workers’ compensation claims.