If the state protects polluters from exposure, everyone loses

Accidents happen, but last week’s dumping of an estimated 20,000 gallons of fracking waste into a Youngstown storm sewer feeding into the Mahoning River was no accident. It was a criminal assault on the environment and should be treated as such.

This incident should set off alarm bells from here to Columbus for a number of reasons.

It happened on the property of D&L Energy, which was the site of an injection well that was shut down after earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.

One would think that if anyone involved in the drilling industry was going to be concerned about going strictly by the books it would be D&L’s chief executive, Ben W. Lupo, who operates a number of related companies. But anyone who thought so would be wrong. An Ohio EPA incident report says an employee of Hardrock Excavating, one of Lupo’s companies, said Lupo told him to dump the contaminated water into the sewer. After more than 120 citations for questionable operations at various sites, Lupo shows little more than contempt for the law.

It has been nearly a week since the incident, but any information about it had to be dragged from the two state agencies responsible for oversight of gas drilling and damage to the environment, the Ohio Environment Protection Agency and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

As of Tuesday, Gov. John Kasich had been briefed, but Youngstown city officials, including the fire chief, the mayor’s office, the department of public works and the police chief, had been given only the bare minimum of information.

The Utica shale oil and gas industry is in its infancy in the Mahoning Valley and while many are excited about its potential, many others are wary or even alarmed about its possible impact on the environment. The last thing the industry needs is the alarmingly irresponsible behavior demonstrated on D&L’s property.

Those who should be most concerned are the companies that are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into this industry — one that they are eager to have seen as a good corporate neighbor. They should join the public and the media in demanding not only the stiffest possible penalties for those who pollute, but greater transparency on the local and state levels.

There is an argument to be made that laws regulating the industry must be uniform across the state. But that doesn’t mean the governor’s office has a stronger interest in what’s happening in Youngstown than the mayor’s office.

Respect the locals

When pollutants are poured into a public waterway, local officials and the public should be notified. When criminal activity is evident, there ought to be a local police report and a recognition that the local prosecutor’s office has an interest in knowing what’s going on.

If the state wants to be trusted on matters of public health involving all aspects of fracking, it has to demonstrate its willingness to expose rogue operators who purposely despoil the land.

So far, the hero in this case is an anonymous tipster. Without him, who knows how much damage Lupo may have done. Of course, based on the state’s secretive response so far, no one yet knows just what was poured down that sewer and what the effect may be. And that’s wrong on multiple levels.

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