The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Energy Transfer, the company building the Rover natural gas distribution pipeline, to pay $431,000 for water and air pollution violations at various locations across the state, including Stark County.
In its order issued Friday, OEPA also instructed Energy Transfer to submit plans to address potential future releases and restore impacted wetlands along the $4.2 billion underground pipeline route, which stretches from Washington County in southeastern Ohio to Defiance County in the northwest.
Work on the pipeline began in mid-February, and state officials say a total of 18 incidents involving mud spills from drilling, stormwater pollution and open burning at Rover pipeline construction sites have been reported between late March and Monday to the agency.
In April, the company smothered a wetland next to the Tuscarawas River with an estimated 2 million gallons of bentonite mud, a natural clay which is used as a drilling lubricant. The pipeline crosses Bethlehem and Pike townships.
Other Rover pipeline incidents included a spill that impacted one village's public water system and a 200-gallon release of mud Monday in Harrison County.
"All told, our frustration is really high. We don't think they're taking Ohio seriously," said OEPA Director Craig Butler. "Normally when we have ... a series of events like this, companies respond with a whole lot of contrition and whole lot of commitment. We haven't seen that. It's pretty shocking."
Alexis Daniel, an Energy Transfer spokeswoman, said Monday in an email statement that the "small number of inadvertent releases of 'drilling mud' during horizontal drilling in Ohio ... is not an unusual occurrence when executing directional drilling operations and is all permitted activity by (the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission).
"We do not believe that there will be any impact to the environment," Daniel said, adding that the company -- the same one behind the controversial Dakota Access pipeline -- is managing the Rover pipeline situation in accordance with its federal- and state-approved contingency plan.
After a pair of wetlands spills in April, Energy Transfer still planned to finish the Rover project and begin operating the pipeline this year.
"I believe and have told them that they're rushing and building so quickly that they're not paying attention to best management practice," said Butler. "With oil and gas expanding in Ohio, we've seen a lot of pipeline activity. We're not unaccustomed to seeing an occasional release.
"This is pretty systemic -- that's when the alarm bells go off in my head."
Butler said the OEPA has referred the matter to the FERC for analysis and is exploring other legal options.
"It's very concerning. These violations are a swath across our entire state," said Cheryl Johncox, a Sierra Club organizer. "We have no faith in their ability to operate a pipeline safely."
OEPA inspectors across the state will continue to assist with monitoring, response and cleanup, Butler said.
But Sierra Club and other environmental groups are calling for the state to go further and seek an immediate injunction to shut down the project.
"Either this company is completely irresponsible or they just don't care," said Johncox. "We want the construction halted."
Butler said the state "is limited in that we cannot ask them to shut down their operations. It's a story left unfinished."