Pennsylvania levels record $1.1 million fine for gas-drilling problems

    Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is fining Chesapeake Energy more than $1 million for natural gas drilling problems in Bradford and Washington counties.

    It’s the harshest fine the agency has ever assessed against an oil or gas operator.

    Nadia Steinzor of Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a national organization working on gas-drilling issues, said the steep fine is unprecedented.

    “The fine level itself is very significant. We usually see fines in other parts of the country in the area of $100,000 or less,” she said. “A few hundred thousand is considered pretty high and those are considered to be record fines.”

    The penalty breaks down into two components: $900,000 for well-migration issues in five Bradford County townships, and $188,000 for a February fire at a Washington County site.

    The Bradford County residential water wells became contaminated with methane after Chesapeake began drilling in the area for natural gas. A DEP representative said Chesapeake’s faulty well construction was to blame.

    DEP Secretary Michael Krancer said the fines were stiff because, “it is important to make the operators live up to their responsibilities. We do take these things extremely seriously. They’re responsibilities. And when it’s required, we will step in and act.”

    Chesapeake voluntarily agreed to the penalties, and has enhanced the casing of its wells, in response to the leaked gas in Bradford Counties.

    “We worked in coordination, in cooperation, with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, from that moment, to try and assess what the situation was, and what actions needed to be taken to address the situation and correct the problem,” said company spokesman Matt Sheppard. “And we’ve done that with enhanced casing and cementing program.”

    While Chesapeake is cooperating, the company hasn’t admitted to causing the Bradford County water well problems. Its statement calls a joint company and DEP investigation of the contaminations “inconclusive.”

    DEP’s announcement made no mention of last month’s spill at a Bradford County well. Krancer said an investigation of that accident is ongoing, and could lead to another fine against the company.

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