A battle is brewing between a natural gas pipeline company and the state's top environmental regulators. The Ohio EPA is slapping the pipeline company with a big fine after spilling millions of gallons of pollution, on top of other violations. But, according to the state, that company is refusing to pay up.
Workers with the Ohio EPA are trudging through a thick, grayish-brown sludge in Stark County. What was once a protected wetland has been turned into one giant mud pit.
The workers are surveying the aftermath of a large spill during the construction of the Rover Pipeline. Crews use this mud to burrow a tunnel underground, making way for the pipe to be laid down later. But during construction, something went wrong and more than two million gallons of this clay-like material surged to the surface.
As Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler explains, this is just one in a series of mistakes made by the Rover Pipeline project.
“We have just seen a pattern of non-compliance and where we think they’re rushing and they’re not paying attention to even the best management practices,” said Butler.
That so-called pattern of non-compliance has racked up a big list of violations for Energy Transfer Partners, or ETP, the company constructing the pipeline. In fact, more than a dozen violations so far.
- - Polluting reservoirs, streams and creeks;
- - More drilling mud spills in other wetlands found in Belmont County and Tuscarawas County;
- - Even burning brush near a home in Jefferson County without permission.
“They’re not taking Ohio seriously, the requirements that we have for environmental protection and protection of public health,” Butler said.
Here’s where things take an odd turn.
Butler says usually, with other companies, the EPA will send a notice of a violation, issue a fine and that company complies…end of story.
But that’s not the case with ETP, according to Butler, the pipeline company has been defiant while disregarding Ohio’s authority as a regulatory agency.
And the $430,000 fine? Butler says, so far, Energy Transfer Partners won't pay it.
“They have refused to enter into negotiation with us because they say the state of Ohio. Does not have the authority to issue this fine and/or penalty.”
The pipeline company fired back at the Ohio EPA, rebuking claims that they’re out of compliance. The company makes this argument by explaining that all their permits for this construction go through federal regulators.
The company turned down a request for an interview, but an ETP spokesperson said in a statement that Butler’s comments have “misrepresented the situation and misstated facts.”
And, in what seems like a slam on the agency, the spokesperson said the company is ready to work with the Ohio EPA to strengthen their understanding of the drilling process.
Environmentalists are watching this very carefully.
“The way they are constructing this pipeline is downright dangerous.”
Jen Miller with the Sierra Club’s Ohio Chapter is bothered by this whole series of events, from the violations to the company’s attitude towards state regulators.
She says Energy Transfer Partners already has a bad reputation all around the country.
It’s the same company that clashed with protestors over the use of Native American waterways and reservations to build the Dakota Access Pipeline in North and South Dakota.
Miller agrees that the Ohio EPA does have the authority to regulate the pipeline project. But she wants them to go a step further and halt construction until they shape up.
“We should not let a company this rogue, with this many violations, so early in a construction process just continue to have access to 18 counties in Ohio to do even more damage,” said Miller.
It’s not every day that the Ohio EPA, under Gov. John Kasich’s administration, finds itself on the same side as environmental advocates. And Butler doesn’t shy away from the fact that they don’t dole out violations willy-nilly.
“We’ve got a proven track record of supporting economic development particularly in the oil and gas sector but that doesn’t mean that you can ignore the fact that you have to do it and abide by state and federal law to protect public health,” said Butler.
Butler has reached out to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, for their help on the issue. He adds that, if ETP keeps this up then he’ll ask Attorney General Mike DeWine to step in.
Back in Stark County, ETP is in charge of cleaning up the spill with Ohio EPA monitoring their work. About 60% of the mud has been cleared.