Polluters damage environment and endanger energy industry

No one should be surprised that the dumping of oil-field waste into the Mahoning River by Ben W. Lupo and his accomplices may well be several times worse than that to which Lupo has admitted.

Lupo, we can only hope, will finally be surprised by how stiff the consequences can be for someone who acts as if he is above the law. Even after he was caught red-handed — or oily black-handed, as the case may be — Lupo continued through a spokesman to deny responsibility for his actions. He displays the gall of a serial polluter.

Yesterday, on the banks of the Mahoning River that Lupo purposely fouled with oil-field waste, a phalanx of federal, state and local officials held a press conference on the day that Lupo made his initial appearance in U.S. District Court in Youngstown to face federal charges that he illegally discharged chemical substances into the river. U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains, Jim Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio EPA were there. It was ODNR that first responded to a tip that well-drilling wastewater was being discharged into the Mahoning River from Hardrock Excavating LLC at 2761 Salt Springs Road, one of a number of companies at that address operated by or connected to Lupo.

Half-hearted admission

Two weeks ago, when an employee of Lupo’s was found emptying a 20,000-gallon tank of brine water and oily waste that we now know contained hazardous pollutants including benzene and toluene, Lupo acknowledged emptying such tanks into a storm sewer (and, eventually the river) perhaps six times.

An affidavit filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday reports that a Lupo employee was aware of such discharges “at least 20 times” since November 2012.

Fortunately, federal law treats such assaults on the environment as felonies, and Lupo, if convicted, faces years in jail and millions of dollars in fines. DeWine already has called for Ohio law, which as of now would have treated Lupo’s transgressions as misdemeanors, to be rewritten so that anyone callous, greedy or foolish enough to emulate Lupo could face state felony charges as well.

In the meantime, DeWine will be pursuing civil action against Lupo, seeking compensation for the expense he has caused the state in a massive cleanup and the damage he has done.

More to investigate

Both Dettelbach and DeWine, as well as Gains, also stressed that the investigations are ongoing. As reporter Jamison Cocklin’s story in last Sunday’s Vindicator demonstrated, Lupo has been assiduous over the years in trying to build firewalls between his various companies and partners. But both the U.S. attorney and the attorney general should be equally assiduous in seeking to hold to account others besides Lupo who may have knowingly profited from his shoddy and criminal behavior. That would include anyone who consigned waste to Lupo knowing that he was not in a position to dispose of it legally.

No one in the oil and gas industry should be anything but outraged at Lupo’s actions and supportive of his prosecution and the stiffening of laws to discourage future illegal disposal in the industry. One or two bad actors have the ability to tarnish an entire industry’s reputation, fairly or unfairly. In addition, drilling and waste disposal companies that cut corners also undercut legitimate competitors.

The industry’s potential to provide jobs, clean energy and economic vitality must not be sabotaged by illegal or unethical opportunists.

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