MARIETTA - A New Matamoras business owner accused of dumping well wastewater into a Monroe County stream is set to stand trial in Feb. 11.
Robert D. Armstrong and his company, RCA Oil and Gas LLC, were indicted Nov. 29 on a charge of knowingly discharging a pollutant into United States water without a proper permit. If convicted, he could face up to three years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Armstrong has pleaded not guilty, said his attorney, federal public defender Gordon Hobson, who declined to comment on the specifics of the case.
The alleged violation occurred at a well off Monroe County 19, about five miles north of New Matamoras in Benton Township, according to Harry Cisler, who owns the property on which the well is located. Court documents say the earthen wall of a reservoir near the well was breached with a backhoe in June 2010, causing approximately 800,000 gallons of water - some of which was considered wastewater from other nearby wells - to flow into Rockcamp Run, a tributary of the Little Muskingum River.
"That is just terrible, because the Little Muskingum is one of the cleanest streams in the state," said Marietta resident Marilyn Ortt, a local environmentalist.
Ortt noted the Little Muskingum flows into the Ohio River at Reno.
According to the indictment filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, RCA provides services for oil and gas wells in southeast Ohio. In June 2010, the well, known as Cisler No. 3, was installed and put into production. The reservoir was built nearby to hold water to be used in the hydraulic fracturing process.
Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has gotten a great deal of attention lately as interest and activity in accessing the Marcellus and Utica shale formations has increased. While the horizontal drilling process allowing access to the formations is new, fracking, which involves pumping chemical-laced water into the shale to fracture it and access mineral resources, is not.
The Cisler well appears to be a vertical, rather than horizontal well, because it is not included on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' tally of Marcellus and Utica wells, said Jocelyn Kozlowski, public information officer for ODNR. Ravenna-based Beck Energy Corp. is listed as the owner of the well, but no one there was available to discuss it Thursday.
The reservoir at the Cisler well was filled with approximately 2.2 million gallons of fresh water, the indictment says. Later, it says, Armstrong arranged for approximately 90,000 gallons of brine water, which came from two nearby oil and gas wells, to be placed in it.
"Because the brine was from oil and gas wells, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources considered the liquid in the reservoir to be oil field wastewater and therefore it had to be disposed of properly," the indictment says.
After the Cisler well was fracked, the document says, about 800,000 gallons of water remained in the reservoir at the time Armstrong breached the wall.
A small sample of water from the reservoir was obtained, and analysis showed "significant concentrations of barium and sodium," the indictment says. The documents do not provide a numerical amount for the concentrations.
According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, barium compounds are used by the oil and gas industry to make drilling muds, which keep drill bits lubricated as they move through rock. Ingesting drinking water containing higher levels of barium than the EPA drinking water guidelines can cause gastrointestinal disturbances and muscle weakness with short-term exposure and kidney damage over a longer period of time.
The EPA website, meanwhile, notes the established guidance level of 20 milligrams per liter is probably too low and should be revisited. It notes that high levels of salt intake can be associated with high blood pressure but says the level in drinking water is usually too low to contribute to adverse health effects.
Ortt said there could have been other hazardous materials in the water as well.
"The barium and sodium are indicators of other heavy metals and toxins," she said.
The well is still listed as producing by ODNR. In 2010 and 2011 combined, it produced 25,568 mcf (1,000 cubic feet) of natural gas and 13 barrels of oil in 2011. Statistics for 2012 are not due to be filed until March.