A man who falsely certified that he had properly plugged abandoned oil wells in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest faces sentencing in federal court in December.
The Environmental Protection Agency relied on the falsified certificates in issuing permits for injection wells under the Safe Water Drinking Act, a law intended to safeguard underground sources of drinking water, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Pittsburgh.
And Karen Johnson, the regional chief of EPA’s groundwater enforcement branch, said, “Our main concern is protection of the underground supply of drinking water.”
EPA inspectors conducting an inspection test in 2012 discovered that injected fluid had entered the bottom of an abandoned well in Elk County.
That triggered an investigation by EPA, the U.S. Forest Service and the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, which determined that Ronald Wright had falsified reports submitted to the state, requiring the re-inspection of 95 wells in the national forest.
For example, Wright certified that some of the wells had been plugged more than 2,000 feet deep but they actually had been plugged less than 1,000 feet below the surface, court documents show. Some wells were plugged only at the surface when there should also have been plugs just above the production area and between there and the surface plug.
The injected fluid rerouted through the formation and came up between the well casing and injection tubing, so the well operator “knew there was a problem and shut them in as they started to flow,” Sternberg said.
“There is no known contamination. Luckily the cement plugs that were set were all set at the surface, so the injected fluids didn’t come up to the surface,” Sternberg said.
Wright was a crew chief for S&T Services and Supply Inc., a contractor that well operator ARG Resources Inc. hired to plug the abandoned wells.
The violations took place between September 2009 and April 2011, the indictment charged.
ARG relied on Wright’s state reports to receive EPA permits.
Johnson said there was no indication that other S&T crews didn’t do their own work correctly.
ARG & S&T have agreed to cover the cost of reentering the wells and replugging them if necessary, she said.
About 20 of the 95 wells Wright worked on have been reentered, she said. Problems were found in about six of them.
Wright, who pled guilty to one of the three counts in the indictment, faces a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he’s sentenced on Dec. 20.
David McLeod Jr., the special agent in charge of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in the Middle Atlantic states, said, “Enforcing the criminal provisions of environmental laws is? one of the most powerful tools available to the agency.
“The objective is to hold the regulated community responsible and accountable for their actions, especially if they are egregious or repeat violators,” McLeod said.
Sternberg said the EPA is unaware of any similar violations in Western Pennsylvania.