By JAMISON COCKLIN
THE HEADLINES ARE DECADES OLD, but they all share one person in common: Ben W. Lupo.
Today’s front pages are oddly reminiscent of headlines years ago: “Area brine dumping tied to sodium in Beaver River.” “Ohio EPA probes brine dumping.” “Area firms face pollution suits.”
They’re a window into the
future, demonstrating the habitual
actions of the 62-year-old Lupo — who earlier this week was charged with violating the U.S. Clean Water
Act for instructing employees at Hardrock Excavating to dump hundreds of thousands of
gallons of brine water, oil and drilling waste down a storm drain at 2761 Salt Springs Road.
State officials determined hazardous waste made its way into a nearby creek and then into the Mahoning River.
Under Lupo’s ownership, another company, D&L Energy, has a history of at least 120 violations at 32 injection and extraction wells across Ohio and Pennsylvania stemming from citations levied by environmental regulators for failing to display a permit or
contaminating water and soil, among other transgressions.
But those violations have occurred in the last 15 years or so. Lupo’s history of violations stretches back to the 1970s when his other operations were first scrutinized by state regulators and the press.
In March 1983, a Vindicator
photographer took pictures of a tanker truck backing up to a slag pit in Lowellville and dumping a load of orange-colored liquid into the pit, which eventually discharged into the Mahoning River.
Days later, officials with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said the waste was brine and linked it to “abnormal levels of sodium found in the Beaver River,” the source of drinking water for
Beaver Falls, Pa.
The truck belonged to a fleet operated by Universal Energy Services, owned by Lupo.
According to an affidavit filed earlier this week along with charges in U.S.
District Court, one of Lupo’s employees said Lupo had instructed similar waste dumps on 20 separate occasions at the Salt Springs Road site.
Vindicator archives show that Lupo and his companies have been accused before, fought off the law and continued unabated with oil and gas operations in Ohio, with no convictions and small fines.
In the Lowellville incident, the OEPA launched an extensive investigation, just as it did more than two weeks ago.
“We’ve observed three, 8,000-gallon semi-tractor tankers dumping at one time,” Steve Irwin told The Vindicator at the time.
Irwin, who in 1983 worked in the OEPA’s Twinsburg office, said: “They are dumping brine into a slag pit, where it disappears after about 15 to 20 minutes,” making its way through “a tile-lined sewer system at the site and discharging into the Mahoning River.”
At the time, state law allowed some industrial wastes — but no brine — to be discharged into waterways. Laws for the disposal of drilling waste were similar to those of
today, calling for the fluid to be injected into wells deep underground.
However, it was not uncommon for companies to dispose of industrial waste in the river. The scale of Universal’s pollution was contested, with the company’s superintendent claiming Universal was “only dumping about 150,000 gallons per week.”
Irwin claimed that he witnessed the company continue to dump 500,000 gallons into the slag pit weekly, even as a lawsuit filed on behalf of the OEPA made its way through
Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
That lawsuit actually was brought in 1978, charging Universal Energy with violating the state’s brine-dumping laws.
One year before the Lowellville investigation was launched, the company was found innocent by a jury, leading the state to appeal in the 7th District Court of Appeals — a move that ultimately failed.
Throughout 1983, local authorities weighed pressing charges. The Ohio Oil and Gas Association opposed Lupo’s decision to dump the drilling waste but called its environmental effects “overexaggerated.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was called to assist state regulators, just as it was last month.
Also in 1978, petitions signed by 178 Ellsworth Township residents were presented to trustees there. The petitions demanded that both United Petroleum and Ben Lupo Well Services be prevented from operating in Ellsworth. Lupo was providing water services to United Petroleum, a well-drilling company, at the time.
The petitions listed odor, noise, dust and/or mud, smoke, fire hazards and storage of disabled vehicles, slag, used pipe and storage tanks on the property as a threat to the public well-being, according to a March 1978 article in The Vindicator.
“Ben Lupo removes sludge water from well sites and also provides water for the drilling operations,” the article said. “Residents claim Lupo dumps the waste water, which is contaminated with salt and oil, on [Ben Lupo Well Services] property.”
On Thursday, Ohio
Attorney General Mike DeWine said in addition to federal charges, his office
would likely file civil
charges against Lupo for his latest violation. DeWine said he supports strengthening state laws to punish oil and gas operators who knowingly break them.
In April 1980, though, then-Ohio Attorney General William J. Brown first filed suits against Lupo’s well-services company for polluting the Meander, Mill and Eagle creeks.
The 1980 lawsuit claimed that pollutants were dumped continually off Lupo’s trucks along side roads onto land that drained into waterways.
Today, John F. Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education and a professor of environmental microbiology at Duquesne University, said repeated brine dumps over time pose extreme harm to the Mahoning River and other waterways.
“If it’s dumped and heavily concentrated, it doesn’t readily mix with the river water,” Stolz said. “Over time, the heavier material will collect on the bottom and move down river as a cohesive mass. Eventually it does dissolve, and that can have a direct impact on the biological community, or things living
at or near the bottom of the river.”
Stolz said that brine water
has high concentrations of the chemical bromide, which poses problems for water processing facilities downstream. When mixed with chlorine, the substance becomes highly carcinogenic.
Attempts to contact Lupo’s lawyers Friday were unsuccessful. It also is unclear
whether the Ohio Department of Natural Resources monitors repeat violators.
The agency has issued multiple violations to D&L Energy in recent years for environmental infractions at its injection well sites. Questions submitted to an ODNR spokeswoman on Friday went unanswered.
The Kasich administration has asked the agency to take a closer look at repeat violators to determine if compliance issues should be factored into the permitting process. Under current laws, ODNR can issue violations, but the violations do not prevent companies from receiving other permits to operate.
Lawmakers also are working on legislation that would increase penalties for individuals or operators that knowingly break the law.
In 1994, when he faced public backlash over the burial of brine-laden dirt in Warren, Lupo claimed the drilling waste was harmless.
“This is nothing more than the table salt we all use on our tables,” he told The Vindicator at the time. “I can’t believe a little salt is causing so much trouble ... the way they are acting, you would think it was some kind of nuclear waste.”