YOUNGSTOWN - The former operator of several Youngstown oil and gas companies is facing up to three years in prison, heavy fines and millions of dollars in restitution after he pleaded guilty Monday to ordering that brine be dumped into a Mahoning River tributary.
Benedict W. Lupo, 63, of Poland, pleaded guilty to a single charge of violating the federal Clean Water Act and is set to be sentenced June 16.
Lupo was charged after investigators discovered brine and drilling mud were being regularly dumped into a Salt Springs Road storm sewer, polluting Ohio waterways.
The plea comes just days after Lupo's co-defendant, Michael Guesman, 35, of Cortland, was sentenced to three years of probation and 300 hours of community service. Guesman also had pleaded guilty. A criminal charge against Lupo's company, Hardrock Excavating, still is pending. Hardrock had serviced the oil and gas industry by storing and transporting brine and oil-based drilling mud used in hydrofracturing, or fracking.
Following Monday's hearing, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio Steven M. Dettelbach vowed to continue aggressively investigating and prosecuting cases of people polluting Ohio's waterways.
It is unclear how many times Lupo ordered the oilfield waste be dumped down the storm drain, but investigation records indicate it happened several times between Nov. 1, 2012, and Jan. 31, 2013. Samples taken the night the dumping was discovered contained several hazardous pollutants, including benzene and toluene. Cleanup went on for more than a month.
During Guesman's sentencing last week, his attorney, Carolyn Kucharski, said Lupo instructed Guesman to dump the waste after hours. The fear was if the company could not handle the amount of brine it was receiving, it would lose its disposal contract.
Guesman said when he questioned Lupo about it, Lupo suggested he would take responsibility and pay any fines. Kucharski said Lupo recently agreed to make restitution for the damage caused by pouring the brine down the stormwater drain.
Lupo's other company, D&L Energy, which shares an address with Hardrock Excavating at 2761 Salt Springs Road, last year filed for federal bankruptcy protection after being saddled with more than $1 million in cleanup costs and loss of business after Lupo was linked to the illegal dumping of oilfield waste.
Following Monday's guilty plea, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine issued a statement.
"Ben Lupo put his own business interests ahead of the health and safety of our citizens, natural resources and wildlife by repeatedly releasing or ordering the release of his company's brine waste into the Mahoning River. He will now be held accountable for this terrible crime," DeWine said.
Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler echoed the sentiment.
"This incident is one of a small percentage of egregious environmental violations we see at Ohio EPA that must be prosecuted criminally," Butler said.