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The big energy companies have repeated over and over again that fracking is a harmless practice and there is never any danger to public health.

But Pennsylvania Magisterial District Judge James G. Carn does not agree, ruling that XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil must face criminal charges stemming from the release of over 50,000 gallons of contaminated waste at a Marcellus Shale drilling site in 2010.

After a preliminary hearing, the judge ruled that the eight charges filed, which include violations of the state Clean Streams Law and the Solid Waste Management Act, should be “held for court,” meaning that the giant energy company must face felony charges in a court of law.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Granahan Kane (D) filed the charges in September of last year saying that the company had caused 57,000 gallons of fracking waste water to be spilled when they removed a plug from a wastewater tank. The company argued that there had been “no lasting environmental impact,” and that pursuing the charges could “discourage good environmental practices.”

At the time the charges were filed, Exxon had claimed the “action tells oil and gas operators that setting up infrastructure to recycle produced water exposes them to the risk of significant legal and financial penalties should a small release occur,” apparently not noticing that most people wouldn’t classify 57,000 gallons as a “small release” and at the same time implying that the company would be better off simply doing nothing to prevent contamination.

Hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting gas or oil from a well or for increasing the flow from an older well, has been the subject of debate between environmental advocates and fossil fuel companies for years, with the environmentalists calling for an outright ban on the practice and the corporations insisting that it is a cost effective and harmless method of retrieving otherwise hard to access fuels.

The most recent report on the possible effects of the contaminants in fracking waste water was released in December and based on testing done of ground water and surface water in Garfield County, Colorado where there is heavy fracking activity. The study found that the water contains chemicals which inhibit hormones and are linked to infertility, birth defects, and cancer — result in direct contrast to the “total safety” touted by the energy industry.

XTO agreed in July of 2013 to pay a $100,000 federal fine and make $20 million in improvements to avert another spill all the while insisting that there is no danger involved in the process.

A recent study in Pennsylvania found that the closer one lives to a fracking site the more likely it is that their drinking water is contaminated. A chemical engineer from Duke University Robert Jackson, found methane in 115 of 141 shallow residential drinking-water wells in the vicinity of a fracking site in Pennsylvania. He also found that methane concentrations in homes within a mile of the site were six times higher than in homes more distant from the site.

The maximum penalty for each violation of the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law is $10,000 per day per violation and the maximum for violations of the Solid Waste Management Act is $25,000 per day for each violation — in addition to which the offending party must bear the entire cost of repairing any damage done.

Of course Exxon Mobil will be in court with an army of high price lawyers and attempt every legal maneuver in the book to avoid responsibility. We can only hope that corporate America will be held to account for its transgressions.


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