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Trans Energy facing criminal charges over drilling pollution

By Ken Ward Jr., Staff writer

A St. Marys-based natural gas company that agreed to a $3 million civil penalty is also facing federal criminal charges related to its dumping of material from its drilling operations into West Virginia streams without first obtaining a required permit, court records showed Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice issued a press release announcing the settlement in which Trans Energy Inc. agreed to the civil penalty and to restoring portions of streams and wetlands at 15 West Virginia sites regulators said were polluted by the company’s unauthorized dumping of sand, dirt, rocks and “other materials.”

Four days earlier, Friday, federal prosecutors charged Trans Energy with three criminal violations of the Clean Water Act related to sites that were also part of the civil settlement.

The misdemeanor charges were filed through a document called an “information,” which is usually an indication that the party charged has worked out or is working out a plea agreement with prosecutors. No initial hearing in the criminal case has been scheduled.

David G. McLeod Jr., special agent in charge of the EPA’s criminal enforcement program in the Middle Atlantic States, said companies can face both civil enforcement actions and criminal charges for environmental violations.

“The criminal investigation division collaborates with our enforcement partners to target the most significant and egregious violators,” McLeod said. “We often focus on significant environmental harm and culpable conduct, to include a history of repeated violations and/or misconduct.”

Officials from Trans Energy did not immediately return a phone call.

EPA and DOJ did not mention the criminal charges in their joint press release announcing the civil settlement. Records of the criminal and the civil cases are on file in U.S. District Court in Wheeling. The civil settlement also resolves violations cited by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The allegations against Trans Energy involve the company’s dumping of materials into streams to build impoundments used at its natural gas operations in the Marcellus Shale region of Northern West Virginia between 2009 and 2011. Under federal law, companies must obtain Clean Water Act permits before they deposit such materials into waterways.

Last year, Chesapeake Energy reached a similar settlement with environmental regulators and pleaded guilty to similar charges related to Clean Water Act “dredge-and-fill” permits at its operations in West Virginia.

A civil complaint filed against Trans Energy by EPA and DOJ alleged violations by the company at 15 different sites in Marshall, Marion and Wetzel counties. The criminal charges focused on just three sites in Marshall County that involved dumping of materials into Wolf Run, the North Fork of Grave Creek, and Maggoty Run. In all, federal officials alleged the violations affected about 13,000 linear feet of stream and more than an acre of wetlands.

“Despite knowing that construction of dams in stream channels was regulated, defendant Trans Energy Inc. failed to adequately investigate the ecological characteristics of the stream channel and the requirements for compliance with the Clean Water Act ... in such a manner to insure compliance with the Clean Water Act, particularly with regard to the permitting requirements,” the criminal charging document filed against Trans Energy stated.

In corporate disclosures filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Trans Energy said the EPA had cited the company in September 2012 and December 2012 for alleged violations at seven well sites in Marshall and Wetzel counties. The EPA-DOJ press release on the civil settlement said that those problems were identified by routine federal inspections and by information provided by the state DEP and the public. The release said that this summer, Trans Energy “conducted an internal audit” and “ultimately disclosed to the EPA alleged violations at eight additional locations” that are also part of the civil settlement.

Under the civil settlement, Trans Energy will “reconstruct impacted aquatic resources,” provide “appropriate compensatory mitigation” and implement a program to ensure future compliance with Clean Water Act permit requirements.

“Among other requirements, the company will work to ensure that all aquatic resources are identified prior to starting work on future projects in West Virginia, and that appropriate consideration is given at the design stage to avoid and minimize impacts to aquatic resources,” the EPA-DOJ press release said. The release said that Trans Energy will spend more than $13 million to complete the restoration and mitigation work required by the settlement, which is subject to court approval.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.


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