YOUNGSTOWN - State agencies are conducting a criminal investigation into how more than 20,000 gallons of waste water containing crude oil products ended up in a Salt Springs Road storm sewer and eventually the Mahoning River.
Two public documents released Tuesday by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency indicate that Hardrock Excavating LLC, a company incorporated in the state of Ohio and listed at the same Salt Springs Road address as D&L Energy, was dumping natural gas and oil drilling waste into a storm sewer at the business' 2761 Salt Springs Road address. The dumping was reported by anonymous tip.
An EPA notice of violation report indicates Hardrock's owner, Ben Lupo, had directed a company employee to dump the material into the storm sewer. A separate initial incident report states "the owner (Ben Lupo) contacted ODNR inspectors and accepted full responsibilities."
Lupo also is owner of D&L Energy, with offices at 2761 Salt Springs Road.
No one has been charged in the incident, and the investigation is continuing.
Attempts to reach Lupo on Tuesday were unsuccessful. Doors at the D&L office on Salt Springs Road initially were locked. Eventually, two men who did not identify themselves came to the door, threatened to call police and ordered a reporter to leave the property. They also stated repeatedly that D&L Energy was not involved in the investigation and referred the reporter to D&L spokesman Vince Bevacqua.
Employees of Tom’s Septic and Sewer in McDonald, who declined to give their names, clean brine Tuesday morning from a storm sewer along Salt Springs Road in Youngstown. In the background is the D&L Energy office building. The spill occurred last week on the property. Photo by Brenda J. Linert
A listed home phone number for Lupo was disconnected.
Bevacqua released a prepared statement on behalf of D&L Energy denying that company's involvement.
"We wish to state clearly that D&L Energy was not involved in the incident. Other companies were operating on D&L-owned property at the time of the incident, and it is D&L's understanding that those other companies are working with state authorities to determine exactly what happened and why," the statement said. "D&L will conduct its own independent investigation to determine what companies may have been involved and ascertain the facts surrounding the incident."
When asked if he wished to comment on the EPA report indicating Lupo's involvement, Bevacqua declined, noting that he is spokesman only for D&L Energy, not for Hardrock Excavating.
According to a report filed with the National Response Center in Washington, D.C., the incident occurred about 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
The report indicated that an unknown amount of brine and crude oil were "intentionally dumped into a storm drain at 2761 Salt Springs Road. Ohio EPA investigators have noted oil in a Mahoning River trib. (tributary) and the Mahoning River. Estimated amount could be greater than 20,000 gallons."
Ohio EPA officials said that agency is conducting a criminal investigation based upon a report, but noted that the probe is still in "its preliminary stages."
''As you can imagine, we are very concerned,'' said Chris Abbruzzese, Ohio EPA's Deputy Director for Communications. ''Ohio EPA will not tolerate the flagrant violation of Ohio's environmental laws and companies who violate these laws are jeopardizing their ability to conduct business in the state and will be held accountable.''
Abbruzzese would not estimate how long the investigation might take.
''We have collected samples for testing. We are really just working to make sure that all the information that we are gathering and the interviews we are doing, that we are doing it according to the letter of the law,'' he said.
Since Friday, EPA responders have overseen containment and cleanup of the wastes. Containment booms, absorbent pads, vacuum trucks and other equipment are in place and work continues to clean out the storm drain and remove any remaining product from the unnamed tributary.
A manager with Tom's Sewer and Septic in McDonald, one of at least two companies working Tuesday morning to flush and pump out the storm sewers along Salt Springs Road, said his company had pumped about 60 barrels of fluid from the sewer throughout the morning, but he noted that most of it was the fresh water they had flushed into the sewer.
D&L is not new to controversy involving brine disposal. It was a Youngstown Class II injection well operated by D&L Energy and located near a fault line that in 2011 was blamed for helping to trigger a series of earthquakes, all with epicenters within a mile of the injection well. The well was shut down and the earthquakes subsided since then.
Brine, or waste water containing chemicals and high salt content that is generated in the oil and gas drilling process, is injected deep into the earth for permanent disposal.