Questions persist in Lupo case

The story line on shale oil and natural gas hasn’t changed – done safely, it has the power to change the world and make an impact, as large or larger than steel, on the Mahoning Valley.

The sub plot to that story line hasn’t changed either. The biggest obstacle to capitalizing on the shale oil and natural gas potential are rogue companies that disregard environmental safety.

That’s why, with pressure from the industry itself we presume, there was such a show of force Thursday when D & L Energy owner Ben Lupo turned himself in to federal court in Youngstown where he will answer accusations that he violated the Clean Water Act. Cleanup crews have be taking oil and drilling mud from the Mahoning River and a tributary since Jan. 31, when Ohio EPA investigators witnessed D & L workers flush the fluids into a storm sewer. The OEPA said Lupo admitted to instructing his employees to do so.

Several hours after Lupo’s initial appearance in federal court, the show of force put the hammer down to safeguard the industry. A news conference full of heavy hitters – the U.S. attorney for northeast Ohio, the state attorney general, the director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Mahoning County prosecutor and the Youngstown mayor were all part of the show. They didn’t just talk about throwing the book at Lupo. They talked across party lines about legislative changes to strengthen Ohio’s drilling regulations and penalties.

Industry leaders, meanwhile, pretty much threw Lupo out of their club. ”We believe that any individual or company that has willfully violated Ohio and / or federal law regarding the proper disposal of oilfield wastewater should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” announced Ohio Oil and Gas Association Executive Vice President Thomas E. Stewart.

Gov. John Kasich also declared his support for stronger regulations and stiffer penalties.

While that all sounds good moving forward, state leaders still need to review what appears to be weak enforcement in regards to Lupo’s past. Even if he’s found innocent of the current charges, ODNR owes Ohio residents, especially those in Trumbull, Portage and Ashtabula counties, an explanation of how the businessman was permitted to handle oilfield waste after at least 34 violations since 1998. All the tough laws and punishments on the books won’t mean a thing if not enforced.

In Warren Township in 2002, one of Lupo’s injection wells was an ”imminent danger to public health or safety that is likely to result in immediate substantial damage to natural resources,” according to ODNR.

The well was repaired and permitted to reopen. In 2004, inspectors found the same problem. Weeks later it was permitted to reopen again.

An injection well in Windham was cited eight times in four years for contamination, pollution and other problems, yet Lupo was able to continue receiving permits to operate at other locations.

Also, nobody at the state or federal level appears to care about the worker who actually did the dumping. A suspected bank robber would never get away with the excuse, ”My boss told me to do it.” The authorities would be sending an even stronger message if those who work in the industry knew they, too, would be held accountable if they obeyed orders to break the law.

It was good to see the show of force Thursday to protect the Mahoning Valley’s future. But ODNR owes the public an explanation about overlooking Lupo’s past infractions. A review of all current permit holders for past infractions is also in order, as are steps to prevent repeat violators from continuing to operate. Federal authorities should hold accountable those who followed Lupo’s orders if the actions are illegal.