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A natural gas company operating in Pennsylvania has reached a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged discharge of frack water into a tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, the EPA announced last week.

Under the terms of the settlement, XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp., has to pay a penalty of $100,000 and start a $20 million improvement program to comply with federal regulations regarding recycling, wastewater disposal and spills prevention. XTO Energy must implement this improvement plan at its natural gas exploration operations in both Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the statement said.

In November 2010, an inspector with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) noticed wastewater pouring out from an open valve at the company's Penn Township plant. A government report later found that between 150 and 1,366 barrels, or 6,300 to 57,373 gallons, of flowback and produced water had been discharged into streams.

A subsequent investigation found that wastewater stored in the tanks at the facility contained the same types and amount of pollutants, including chlorides, barium, strontium and total dissolved solids, that surface waters contained. It is common for discharges of wastewaters from natural gas exploration and production activities to contain high levels of total dissolved solids and other pollutants that can have an adverse effect on fresh water aquatic life and drinking water quality, the EPA stated.

Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environmental and Natural Resources Division, explained that the settlement requires XTO Energy to make operational changes to its management practices to ensure the safe and responsible handling of wastewater produced during natural gas exploration and production.

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The settlement also requires the company to install a remote monitoring system for all of its permanent production sites located in both states. The systems must be fitted with alarms which will alert operators immediately in the event of a spill. XTO will also have to launch a program to monitor interconnected wastewater storage tanks in both states. Other measures to improve practices at the plant include opening a 24-hour emergency phone number, remote monitoring of tank volumes to prevent overfilling and spills, and signage on all tanks with safety information.

The Justice Department is determined to make sure that state and federal natural resources are developed in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner, Dreher added.

This settlement, effectively a consent decree, sets a program of best practices that should be an industry benchmark and, by following it, the company will be able to regain the trust of the people of Pennsylvania and assure then that their waters will be protected, which is in the best interest of the industry and the community, commented Peter J. Smith, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The EPA will continue to promote responsible development of U.S. sources of energy and to ensure that companies comply with the rules that protect public health, the agency stated.