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W.Va. drilling firm faces criminal pollution charges

WHEELING, W.Va. — Oil and gas company Trans Energy Inc. faces federal criminal charges for allegedly releasing natural gas drilling materials into streams and wetlands in Marshall County.

An information filed Aug. 29 in U.S. District Court in Wheeling charges the St. Marys-based company with three counts of negligent discharge of pollutants without a permit. The charges, all misdemeanors, stem from the construction of impoundments at various sites.

Contractors working for Trans Energy allegedly discharged fill material, including sand, dirt, rocks and other pollutants, into Wolf Run, which is a tributary of Wheeling Creek, between Sept. 11 and Oct. 19, 2010 and an unnamed tributary of North Fork of Grave Creek, from Sept. 25 to Oct. 19, 2010, according to court documents. A third count stems from alleged discharges into Left Fork of Maggoty Run between Sept. 25 and Oct. 31, 2011.

The information further alleges Trans Energy failed to train its employees and contractors of their obligation to obtain a permit for such discharges under the Clean Water Act. The company also failed to investigate the streams’ characteristics and instead relied on “unsubstantiated representations of an interested property owner as to whether the construction activities complied with applicable environmental laws,” the document states.

The statutory penalty for negligent discharge is between $2,500 and $25,000 per day of violation. Based on the 106 total days of violation alleged in the information, a potential fine could range anywhere from $265,000 to $2.65 million, although the penalties could increase substantially under the Alternative Fines Act.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said actions such as these are necessary to hold companies accountable for their actions.

“West Virginia’s wetlands deserve protection from pollution,” said David McLeod Jr., special agent in charge of the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division, working out of the agency’s Philadelphia office. “Furthermore, wetlands play a critical role in maintaining water quality, filtering and slowing the flow of surface water, and reducing the impact of flooding. They also provide essential habitats for fish and other wildlife.”

The case is before U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey. No hearing date has been set.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Justice and the EPA announced a $3 million civil settlement with Trans Energy. The money would be split between state and federal governments, and the company also agreed to restore portions of streams and wetlands damaged by its activity.

Overall, federal officials say 15 West Virginia sites were polluted by the company’s unauthorized discharge of dredge or fill material. The alleged violations occurred between 2009 and 2011.

McLeod said the civil and criminal cases against Trans Energy are related.

“There was more history and more issues of environmental harm related to those three sites as opposed to the others,” which led to the filing of criminal charges, McLeod said of the Wolf Run, North Fork and Maggoty Run sites.

The Department of Justice says Trans Energy expects to spend $13 million in the consent agreement. The deal also resolves alleged violations of state law brought by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Officials allege the company impounded streams and discharged sand, dirt, rocks and other materials into streams and wetlands.

A Trans Energy representative did not respond to a phone call and email requesting comment.

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