Charges filed in brine case

YOUNGSTOWN – The man accused of directing the illegal dumping of hundreds of thousands of gallons of drilling waste is free on bond but not free from problems after he was charged Thursday in federal court.

Ben Lupo, 62, owner of D&L Energy and Hardrock Excavating LLC, declined to comment after he left the federal courthouse downtown, where he was arraigned on a single count of illegally discharging into a U.S. waterway.

Lupo, of Poland, was charged with federal violations of the Clean Water Act. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison, a $250,000 fine and a year of supervised release. The investigation remains ongoing.

According to documents released Thursday, Lupo had instructed his employees more than 20 times since November to drain oilfield waste into a storm drain on the company’s Salt Springs Road property.

Until now, state officials have said Lupo admitted to dumping the material up to six times.

At a news conference on the banks of the Mahoning River, the waterway where some of the oilfield waste had drained, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said his office will be filing a civil complaint within days against Lupo for the infractions at the drilling site, seeking to levy heavy fines against Lupo for his actions. All those at the news conference, where federal, state and local officials spoke, said they want the harshest penalties possible against Lupo.

“This miscreant who dumped his waste into our waterways should be prosecuted to the fullest extent,” said Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains.

Authorities received a tip on Jan. 31 that employees were illegally dumping waste from their drilling sites into a storm sewer at their Salt Springs Road facility that leads to a tributary of the Mahoning River.

The criminal complaint filed against Lupo states a Hardrock employee told investigators the dumping began in November and that at least 20 times a discharge was made into the storm sewer.

When investigators arrived the day after the tip, they found an oily sheen in the river and in the tributary, the complaint states.

A cleanup effort has been under way at the D&L site and the river and is expected to continue into next week.

U.S. EPA officials said 126,000 gallons oily water had been collected as of Thursday evening. In addition, 300 cubic yards of oiled debris, including soil, oiled pads and booms and oiled vegetation, also have been collected. Officials said they could not yet estimate a dollar figure for the cleanup efforts.

Rick Simmers, head of the oil and gas division of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said some of the chemicals that were dumped include brine and crude oil, some of which dissolves in the water. The Ohio EPA also said other chemicals include benzene and toluene, which are hazardous pollutants and one of the reasons why Lupo is facing criminal charges.

Asked to review chemical results released by the EPA Thursday, Youngstown State University professor Jeffrey C. Dick, chairman of the department of geological and environmental sciences and the director of the Natural Gas and Water Resources Institute, said those two chemicals occur naturally in petroleum but would not be found in water sources in such high concentrations.

”They are associated with oil, but when it gets into our water, that is a problem,” Dick said. ”My basic take on it is even if the levels aren’t what would be considered to be hazardous to human life and wildlife, the principle behind what he (allegedly) was doing is just really bothering. Industry people are just outraged.”

The state has revoked all of Lupo’s permits to operate wells and any pending permits, said ODNR Director James Zehringer.

“In this situation, there was a blatant disregard for the law,” Zehringer said.