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Ohio Fracking CEO Pleads Not Guilty in Federal Toxic Waste-Dumping Case

The Mahoning River. (Photo: Jack Pearce / Flickr)

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Ben Lupo, owner of D&L Energy and Hardrock Excavating, pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal felony charges under the Clean Water Act.

Lupo is accused of ordering the dumping of thousands of gallons of chemical-laced fracking waste into streams in Youngstown, Ohio.

On the night of January 31, state investigators acted on an anonymous tip and caught Lupo’s employees dumping oil and gas drilling waste – fluid, mud and oil – into a storm sewer that empties into a tributary of the Mahoning River, according to the Justice Department.

Lupo admitted to state authorities that he ordered the initial dumping and later told investigators he ordered employees to dump the contents of a fracking waste storage tank into the storm drain on six occasions. A Hardrock Excavating employee, however, told authorities that he was aware of 20 dumping incidents since November 2012, according to the Justice Department.

Lupo’s storage tanks hold about 21,000 gallons of waste.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a controversial drilling technique that is facilitating an oil and gas boom in Ohio and nearby states. Fracking produces large quantities of chemical-laced waste fluids and mud.

Lupo’s D&L Energy operated the Northstar 1 fracking wastewater injection well that caused a series of earthquakes in 2011 and early 2012, including one quake that measured 4.0 on the Richter scale. Truthout published an investigative report on the earthquakes last summer.

Lupo has been charged with violating the Clean Water Act, a federal offense that carries a maximum penalty of a $250,000 fine and up to three years in prison, said to Steven M. Dettelbach, the US attorney for the Northern District of Ohio. State regulators also revoked operating permits for D&L Energy and Hardrock Excavating, a brine-hauling firm owned by Lupo.

Test results released by Ohio regulators on Thursday show the presence of harmful pollutants, including benzene and toluene, in the watersheds contaminated by the waste. The pollutants support the criminal charges against Lupo under the Clean Water Act, regulators said.

Brian Cook, chief counsel for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), said on Thursday that ongoing cleanup efforts in the polluted watersheds are expected to continue into next week.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said his office is pursuing its own case against Lupo as the state-level investigation continues.

DeWine said during a news conference he is “very happy” that Lupo is facing criminal charges on the federal level because the federal government has “much stronger laws than the state of Ohio does.”

“I believe it’s time that Ohio law catches up to where federal law is,” DeWine said.

Ohio has become a popular destination for fracking waste disposal, where a majority of the liquid waste is injected into underground wells. The state accepts large volumes of waste from other heavily fracked states, like Pennsylvania, and environmentalists are concerned that Ohio is becoming a fracking waste “dumping ground” due in part to lax regulations.

On February 12, a coalition of Ohio residents sent a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asking him not to lift a moratorium on fracking in his state out of fear that even more waste will end up in Ohio. The letter accuses the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates fracking waste disposal, of approving injection well permits at “alarming rates” and having “a long history of ignoring repeated flagrant violations, not even enforcing its weak rules, ignor[ing] citizens’ concerns and denying evidence of problems.”