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Science & Environment

Federal Charges Filed In Ohio Dumping Case


In Youngstown, Ohio, the owner of an oil and natural gas drilling company has been charged with a violating the Federal Clean Water Act. He's accused of dumping tens of thousands of gallons of drilling waste water into a storm sewer that eventually runs into a local river.

From member station WKSU, M.L. Schultze has more.

M.L. SCHULTZE, BYLINE: Steel mills used to stand here, along Salt Springs Road in Northwest Youngstown. They came down decades ago, replaced by massive, modern warehouses. And for the last two weeks, guys in blue and yellow hazmat suits, with tanker trucks and backhoes, have fanned out across the lawns, parking lots and ditches, following the path of a storm sewer from one of those warehouses, down a ravine, into a creek and eventually into the Mahoning River. Booms and vacuum trucks are skimming off an oily sheen on the water, while other crews dig up sediment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They got a lot of cleaning to do.

SCHULTZE: All of this is designed to capture the brine, drilling mud and toxic chemicals that state regulators say were intentionally dumped down a storm sewer on January 31st.

Youngstown Mayor Chuck Sammarone says, where was the oversight?

MAYOR CHUCK SAMMARONE: Here's what I don't understand. You knew the track record of this guy, so they should have been checking up there, not even daily, but by the second, so what's going on.

SCHULTZE: This guy is 62-year-old Ben Lupo, who runs D&L Energy and a score of other companies that haul and dispose of the leftovers from hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas. He's been in the business for nearly 30 years, and together, his companies have racked up more than 100 environmental violations. He also ran a deep injection well that Ohio officials say triggered earthquakes here two years ago. Still, until yesterday, none of the cases brought criminal charges.


SCHULTZE: Lauren Schroeder is a retired biology professor whose been studying the Mahoning River pretty much since he came to Youngstown, nearly a half century ago. He says dumping like this is a throwback to the bad old days.

LAUREN SCHROEDER: You know, it's just astounding that that would be going on today. It's just atrocious.

SCHULTZE: Especially, as the Mahoning has been making a recovery. People might not swim in it yet, but they fish and kayak. And it's far from what Schroeder calls the "Dante's Inferno" days, when the river served as an open sewer for steel mills.

SCHROEDER: The temperature often exceeded 100 degrees, in fact it usually exceeded 100 degrees. There were 70,000 pounds of oil that floated on the river each day - high levels of cyanide.

SCHULTZE: In comparison, drilling wastewater may seem mild. But Schroeder says the river remains fragile. And he says it's important to make an example of this illegal dumping now, because there will be lots more fracking waste to dispose of.

SCHROEDER: And that's a huge cost and there's a big incentive to get rid of it as cheap as you can.

SCHULTZE: Ben Lupo has pleaded not guilty to the charge. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison. His company declined repeated interview requests. But when it first acted on an anonymous tip about the dumping two weeks ago, the EPA says Lupo claimed he thought it was legal.

Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally finds that hard to believe.

SCOTT NALLY: There is absolutely no way he could have even thought for a second, that that would have been an appropriate means of disposal.

SCHULTZE: What's also noticeable to many here is that other drillers aren't exactly rushing to Lupo's defense.

TOM STEWART: I have no desire to talk to Mr. Lupo.

SCHULTZE: That's Tom Stewart of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, which is applauding the criminal charges and revocation of Lupo's operating permits.

Dave Kaminski directs energy policy for the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce and he notes drillers have billions invested in Ohio, and haven't yet collected much of a return.

DON KAMINSKI: It would seem to me you would have a great incentive to ensure that this was done right, because public policy and public opinion could flip on you in a week if you really messed it up.

SCHULTZE: For now, federal and state investigators are trying to figure out just how big a mess this was. They say Ben Lupo has acknowledged dumping fracking waste water into storm sewers as many as six times since September.

For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.