By Joseph O. Minott
When it comes to fining chronic polluters, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection isn’t going far enough.
In late March, DEP, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), announced a $1.9 million settlement against Chesapeake Energy for illegally damaging wetlands and streams at 76 fracked gas well sites in northeast and western Pennsylvania.
The public now has a 30-day opportunity to comment on the agreement and send a clear message to regulators – this fine is unfortunately too little, too late. Given the scale of unlawful behavior, Chesapeake should be shut down for good.
Compare that $1.9 million fine here in the Commonwealth to a recent settlement in Delaware totaling $205 million for wastewater violations. Mountaire Corp.’s settlement with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control – more than 10 times what Chesapeake will pay — includes money for affected residents and requires the chicken producer to spend $140 million upgrading its controls.
To be clear, the 76 instances of illegal environmental destruction addressed in the Chesapeake settlement represent only a small fraction of the total damage inflicted by this fracked gas driller.
Chesapeake readily admits to damming streams and filling in wetlands here in Pennsylvania. It’s clear the company sees these violations, and the fines that come with them, as merely the cost of doing business.
- TO GET INVOLVED: The Department of Justice will accept written comments relating to this proposed Consent Decree for thirty (30) days from the date of publication of this Notice. Please address comments to Laura J. Brown, Environmental Defense Section, Environment and Natural Resources Division, United States Department of Justice, Post Office Box 7611, Washington, DC 20044–7611, [email protected], and refer to United States, et al. v. Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC, DJ # 90– 5–1–1–20432.
Chesapeake has a long history of environmental damage, deceptive leasing practices and hefty fines in Pennsylvania and beyond.
These violations date back to 2014, when the company was investigated for similar destructive practices. Yet these six- and seven-figure fines have proven to do little to curb the reckless actions of a company that earns billions in revenue each year. Even bankruptcy couldn’t derail Chesapeake’s thirst, as the company emerged from Chapter 11 earlier this year with a stated commitment to renew its focus on fracked gas.
Ineffective efforts to regulate the gas industry have plagued Pennsylvania since Chesapeake and others first kicked off the rapid, wild west-style expansion of drilling in the Commonwealth over a decade ago.
Last year, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a 235-page report prepared by a statewide investigating grand jury that detailed the findings of its two-year investigation into the state’s willful blindness toward the gas industry’s impacts. As that report highlights, clean air and water are fundamental constitutional rights in Pennsylvania – too many residents and communities are being denied these rights living in the shadow of fracked gas operations.
Pursuant to last month’s consent decree, the DOJ will accept public comments on the terms of the agreement through the end of this month (April 29). It’s a chance for Pennsylvanians to send a clear message to Chesapeake and the officials in charge of regulating them. Cooperative agreements – even with hefty price tags – just aren’t working. As I have expressed to DEP in the past, we will never fine these companies into compliance. It’s time to put our communities and our environment first. It’s time to shut down chronic polluters like Chesapeake for good.
Joseph O. Minott is the executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council. He writes from Philadelphia.