Monthly Archives: December 2013

Range Resources Calls Subcontractor That Admitted Unreported Spill “Lying Bastards” – Suggests Fracking With Employees’ Bodies

Courtesy of Robert M. Donnan

(Photo courtesy of Robert M. Donnan)

Fluid pump & temporary pipelines

Editor’s Note: On Dec. 19, the Observer-Reporter newspaper published a story regarding an order by Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca that granted a motion to compel discovery of all photos associated with a December 2010 flowback water spill by Red Oak Water Hauling, now doing business as Rockwater Energy Solutions.

To read that story, click here.

As part of that motion, attorneys from the Smith-Butz Lawfirm included documents garnered through the discovery process – including internal emails and personnel records detailing an unreported spill of more than 21,000 gallons of flowback water, as well as a “cover up” perpetrated by one of its employees (who received a three-day suspension related to the incident, according to those records).

To read my investigative report about that motion, and to view the source documentation, click here.

While the court proceeding earlier this month resulted in a one-page order compelling Red Oak to disclose all photos of the spill, the pleading also included supporting documents that are shocking.

Red Oak has denied the existence of the spill, despite their own internal documents saying that it happened.

Here’s what I found out in those documents. -amanda

In the days leading up to an unreported spill of more than 21,000 gallons of flowback water in Washington County, Pennsylvania, by Red Oak Water Transfer, executives from Range Resources expressed frustration with the company – one of its subcontractors – calling Red Oak employees “lying bastards” in a chain of emails detailing issues including three additional leaks of a water supply line flowing from an Amwell Township frac pond, public documents show.

The emails are part of a 31-page supplemental exhibit filed Dec. 19 to compel a response from Red Oak as part of a civil lawsuit that originated in 2012 after three Washington County families living near the frack pond sued Range and more than a dozen of its subcontractors, alleging that toxic exposure from the impoundment caused those residents to suffer various illnesses. It also alleges that those companies were responsible for contamination of their drinking water.

While the original motion to compel Red Oak, now doing business as Rockwater Energy Solutions, to provide photographs of the spill included internal emails and personnel files from Red Oak detailing both the spill its “cover up” by an employee later suspended for three days without pay for the “serious incident,” exhibits included in the most recent filing reveal a tense relationship between the company and Range around the time of the unreported spill, which was never reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection, despite clear reporting requirements set forth in Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law.

Under Pennsylvania law, Range Resources as the permit holder is liable for the conduct of its subcontractors – whether it is aware of violations or not.

“Lying Bastards”

In an email chain that begins on Dec. 5 – just five days before the spill – Range Resources employee Dustin Bradick writes:

We are still trying to get water to the Yeager…This has been a mess out here today, the line was supposed to be ready so we could kick on pumps and pressure test nice and smooth…Instead this morning we were waiting on connecting pieces that were broke to drain the line I haven’t seen (Red Oak’s) Josh Kelly … all day and I’m getting rather irritated with this, right now they think its froze some where around Van Kirk Ridge Road due to not draining the line when this has already been stressed.

Another Range employee, Peter Miller, then asked if the issue had reached the point where he needed to step in and make a phone call to Red Oak.

Bradick emailed him back later that same day, writing:

We’re at that point Pete they haven’t communicated with me at all, every time I need an update on what’s going on I have to chase down a supervisor.

A few hours after that email, Bradick emailed Miller again to express his frustration with Red Oak, this time accusing them of being dishonest.

He wrote:

Why are they trying to lie to us when I’ve been sitting here all day seeing what’s going on. I’ll give (Red Oak’s) Matt Smiley a call.

Miller’s response?

Good…lying bastards.

The supplemental exhibits also include an email sent to Red Oak executives from the company’s Director of Safety and Compliance Richard Hoffman on the morning of Dec. 8 – just two days before the unreported spill of more than 21,000 gallons of flowback water.

Courtesy of Robert M. Donnan

(Photo courtesy of Robert M. Donnan)

Sierzega well pad & Baker compressor station

The email reveals that Range officials discovered three additional leaks of the line between the Yeager impoundment and a nearby drill site.

Hoffman wrote:

I just got off the phone with Pete Miller of Range Resources, and it was not a pleasant experience. Mr. Miller brought it to my attention that Range employees discovered three leaks in the line between the Yeager and Serezega pits.

Although two of them were small, he feels these events are an indication of greater problems. These are his basic concerns:

  • Range employees noticed the leaks not (Red Oak Water Transfer) employees.
  • There was no evidence that ROWT employees were walking the lines to check for leaks.

Fracking With the Bodies of Red Oak Employees?

Also included as an exhibit was an email between Range’s Miller and Red Oak employees dated Dec. 10, 2010 – the date of the unreported spill.

Miller wrote:

I realize there have been icing issues but we are rapidly getting to the level at the Yeager site where we need to add water. Please advise ASAP.

To that, another Range employee emailed Miller directly with a question:

What is our plan B if we can’t get this damn line running?

To that, Miller responded:

Plan B? Start frac’ing with the bodies of Red Oak employees?

Red Oak Executive: A Tale of Two Stories?

Documents included in the Dec. 19 filing also show that Red Oak executive Matt Smiley has, under oath, given several different versions of a story regarding the unreported December 2010 spill and the disciplinary action the company took against the supervisor who was responsible for its “coverup.”

Court documents filed Dec. 6 show that Smiley denied the existence of photographs of the spill that were referenced in internal Red Oak emails, and that he testified he had never seen them.

Nobody has pictures of anything,” Smiley said, according to court documents.

Smiley also suggested in the deposition that the employee who reported the spill to management may have fabricated details in an effort to get the supervisor, Blackburn, terminated.

But, when asked under oath in a recent deposition about Blackburn’s work history at Red Oak, Smiley couldn’t remember much other than that the man had an attitude problem.

The plaintiff’s attorney then asked him, “Anything else?”

But before Smiley could answer, his attorney chimed in, telling him, “To the extent that you remember…”

Smiley then answered, “Not that I remember.”

But in a trial in Pittsburgh on Dec. 14, 2011, Smiley was able to recall much more about Blackburn and his suspension.

Smiley testified in a lawsuit between Red Oak and two of its employees including Blackburn, as well as those employees’ new employer, Countrywide.

Red Oak sued Blackburn, a second former Red Oak employee and Countrywide, claiming that Blackburn’s employment was in violation of a non-compete clause.

“One of the issues with him was his failure to report a spill of blended water in early 2011?” an attorney asked Smiley.

Smiley, who stated under oath in that trial that water hauling in Washington County, for him, was a “case of trial an error,” answered, “Correct.”

The attorney then asked him, “And you were present when he was spoken to about that?”

Smiley’s answer?

“I was present,” he said.

What Now?

Red Oak’s response to the motion to compel the photos was that they do not exist, and suggested that the request was sensational on the part of the plaintiff’s attorneys.

But Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca sided with the plaintiffs in the case – ordering Red Oak to produce “all photos” of the December 2010 spill before its Director of Safety and Compliance Richard Hoffman is deposed.

It was not immediately known when that deposition would take place.

Details of the unreported spill prompted state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil,earlier this month to call for an investigation into the incident. The case must be referred by either the Washington County District Attorney’s Office or the state Department of Environmental Protection before the state Attorney General’s office can legally conduct such an investigation.

Note: A special thank you to Robert M. Donnan for the use of his photos. To view more of his photos, click here.

Also: Want to read the exhibits yourself? Here they are:

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PA State Rep. Calls for Investigation of Unreported Spill, ‘Cover Up’ By Marcellus Shale Company


A Pennsylvania lawmaker on Monday called on county, state and federal authorities to investigate an unreported spill and cover up of flowback water related to Marcellus Shale drilling activity in Washington County.

That spill and cover up were detailed in emails and personnel files from Red Oak Water Transfer, now doing business as Rockwater Energy Solutions. Those documents were garnered through the discovery process in a suit filed against Range Resources and more than a dozen of its subcontractors by a group of residents who allege that their drinking water was contaminated and family members sickened by drilling activity near their homes.

The internal emails between Rockwater employees and executives, which were first reported Saturday by the Marcellus Monitor website, detail a spill of gas well flowback water on Dec. 6, 2010, with a minimum of 21,000 gallons spilling into an environmentally sensitive waterway that empties into a trout-stocking stream.

The emails describe black water pouring out of a pipe into the ground, and then into a nearby stream. However, the exact location of the spill was not specified, and sworn testimony from a Rockwater executive, who was included in the emails, now denies any spill ever occurred.

In a letter directed to state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone, U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the state Fish and Boat Commission White wrote:

In September 2013, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane filed charges against XTO Energy Inc. in relation to a spill of 50,000 gallons of flowback water in Lycoming County. The Washington County would appear to be equally, if not more egregious because the spill was never reported and was in fact covered up by the companies. The emails indicate a minimum of 21,000 gallons of flowback water, but the actual amount could have been far more.

Even worse is the fact that the producer, Range Resources, admitted in court filings that they do not know all of the chemicals (it) uses in the hydraulic fracturing process. Based on that admission, which was reported on in the national media, there is simply no way to know what was in the flowback water that spilled. As such, the impact to the waterways and the subsequent impact to humans, wildlife and fish cannot possibly be determined with any level of specificity.

Based on the seriousness of this incident, the uncertain impacts to the people and habitat of Pennsylvania and the seemingly clear intent to cover up this incident to avoid any level of responsibility and or accountability whatsoever, I am asking  you to investigate and if necessary prosecute any responsible parties to the fullest extent of the law.

However, in order for the attorney general to take the case, it must be referred by the DEP, the Washington County district attorney or the state Fish and Boat Commission — and White urged all three to refer the case to the attorney general immediately.

“With the companies involved still operating every day in southwestern Pennsylvania, the people deserve immediate action and real answers about what really happened out there,” White said Tuesday in a press release . “Identifying and punishing bad actors is the only way to put the natural gas industry on notice that their commitment to environmental safety must be more than industry talking points. You have to practice what you preach.”

Messages left on the cell phones and at the Harrisburg offices of state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane, and state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, seeking comment on the matter were not returned Tuesday.

The spill occurred in their Legislative districts.

Editor’s Note: There will be several follow ups coming regarding this spill, and the call for an investigation. In the meantime, if you would like to view the entire letter White sent to authorities see below or click here.

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Internal Emails from Marcellus Water Hauler Detail Unreported Spill, ‘Cover Up’

Internal email correspondence from Red Oak Water Transfer revealed executives were not only aware of a spill of at least 21,000 gallons of flowback water from Marcellus Shale drilling operations in Washington County, but also detailed the subsequent “cover up,” according to a motion filed in Washington County Common Pleas Court Friday.

The motion also indicates that the email regarding the spill was sent to executives four days after the incident. However, the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Act requires that companies notify the state Department of Environmental Protection within two hours of those incidents, the attorneys for the plaintiff’s wrote in the motion.

There is no evidence that the spill was ever reported to the DEP, and one of the executives who received an email about the incident later testified under oath that he doubted it ever happened, adding that he believed that it could have been fabricated by an employee.

…I did an investigation myself and I couldn’t find a single sign or evidence indicating that any type of water was released of that magnitude,” the executive, Matt Smiley, wrote.

But internal personnel files show the manager responsible for the spill was in fact suspended without pay because of his role in what was described in the file as a “cover up.”


Attorneys for Stacey Haney and a handful of other residents who live near a frack pond in Amwell Township operated by Range Resources, for whom Red Oak, a Texas-based company, is a subcontractor, filed the motion to compel discovery responses from Red Oak. The motion, filed with the Washington County Prothonotary Office, is part of a suit against Range and more than a dozen subcontractors filed in 2012. The suit alleges that toxic exposure from the impoundment caused those residents to suffer various illnesses. It also alleges that those companies were responsible for contamination of those residents’ drinking water.

In the motion filed Friday, attorneys for the plaintiffs ask the court to compel Red Oak, now doing business as Rockwater Energy Solutions, to disclose photos of the spill referenced in internal email correspondence between the company’s Director of Safety and Compliance Rich Hoffman and other executives.

The emails and other documents were disclosed by Red Oak as part of the discovery process related to the suit. One of the emails Hoffman sent Dec. 10, 2010 with the subject line reading “Range Situation” described the circumstances of the spill, which reportedly happened Dec. 6, 2010.


In the email, he wrote that Smiley, general manager of Rockwater, had been alerted to the spill, and pictures taken on an employee’s cell phone of the incident had been forwarded to him for review.

500 barrels

Hoffman wrote:

The spill occurred at a stream crossing due to a pipeline failure, most likely caused by an ice related pressure buildup. Here is where things get weird. Everyone we spoke with, either in person or via telephone, was very reluctant to speak…up.


At a minimum, 500 barrels of flowback water went into the stream…Based on the MarkWest permit we found at the stream crossing, the stream is an ‘environmentally-sensitive waterway’ because it empties into a trout-stocking stream.

In the message, Hoffman writes that he was able to get one employee to speak up about the incident. He then gives a list of what that employee had reported to him. The details given by that employee included:

Crew members noted lots of black water pouring out of a pipe and onto the ground, then into the stream.

The director of safety and compliance also wrote about what the employee said happened when he called his supervisor, Kelly Blackburn, to report the incident:

Kelly swore, then told him to shut off the pumps and flush the line with fresh water. Kelly also told (the employee) to keep it quiet.

Hoffman also wrote that the spill was never reported to upper management of Red Oak, or to Range. “If this incident is reported to Range, it could be the end of our business relationship,” he wrote.

In a subsequent email, Hoffman pondered why spills were even monitored and documented, and even references court action.

Why do we track spills at all? I feel once we record a spill, then we ‘own’ that event. In light of recent litigation … do we really want to have an electronic, permanent record of our acceptance of liability?


And he went on to imply that Range Resources, not Red Oak, should be liable.

We must also consider the fact that, from a regulatory standpoint, our client partners own the water. Any reporting to a regulatory agency must be done by the client. If the client chooses not to report a particular event, are we unnecessarily exposing ourselves (and them) to liability?

Court documents indicate that Red Oak officials refuse to disclose the photos because officials said they do not exist, which led to the filing of the motion to compel.

Documents also show that Smiley denied the existence of the photographs referenced in Hoffman’s email and stated that he had never seen them.

“Nobody has pictures of anything,” Smiley said, according to court documents.

Smiley also suggested in his deposition that the employee who reported the spill may have fabricated details in an effort to get the supervisor, Blackburn, terminated.

If the incident had occurred, Smiley said, disciplinary action against Blackburn would have persisted. And Blackburn, he said, was never terminated.

But in the motion, attorneys wrote that Red Oak’s personnel files show that Blackburn had in fact been suspended without pay. The reason for the suspension was listed on those files as being related to “flowback spill cover-up” according to court documents. Red Oak personnel files, attorneys stated in the motion, also referenced photos of the spill.


“Red Oak’s internal personnel records use the phrase ‘cover up’ to describe Kelly Blackburn’s actions in response to the flowback spill no less than three times,” attorneys write in the motion.

Court documents also indicate that Red Oak attached the phrases “serious violation” and “significant incident” to the spill.

Argument on the motion is expected to take place at 9:15 a.m. Dec. 12 at the Washington County Courthouse before President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca.

Here is the full motion:

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MarkWest Mum on Flames from Compressor Station (And Why It Requested Power There Be Shut Off)


Residents who live near a MarkWest compressor station in Chartiers Township, Washington County, reported seeing flames from the facility early Friday morning, but while more than 12 hours has elapsed since the first sighting, the midstream Marcellus Shale company has stayed mum on the cause.

I’m not seeing any statement/story in any of the local media sources.

However, state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, posted twice about the flames on his Facebook page Friday, posting video and pictures from those who live nearby.

What he found interesting? Here’s an excerpt from one of the legislator’s status updates:

After the noise was heard around 4 AM, MarkWest called the county 911 dispatcher and said they were flaring- after it had already started.

When asked by the press, a DEP spokesman also said it was just flaring. But what neither MarkWest or the DEP told anyone was that MarkWest had called West Penn Power and told them to shut off the power coming into the processing facility for reasons unknown; this was confirmed to me personally by West Penn. The power is still off, and the flaring is still going on; this picture was sent to me moments ago.

White then asked, “Does it seem odd to anyone else that they would need to have the power shut off for over 12 hours now if it was just a ‘typical 4 AM flaring?’ And why didn’t MarkWest or DEP say anything about the power needing to be shut off?”

As a reporter whose covered this company for years?

What seems oddest to me is the crickets chirping over there at MarkWest.

Last summer, I broke a story about plumes of thick, black smoke billowing from the compressor station that could be seen from miles and miles away.

When I called MarkWest then, spokesman Robert McHale took my phone call and then followed up with an emailed statement from the company explaining the incident and reiterating that the public was never at risk. The DEP also issued a statement indicating that an inspector was on scene and that the department was looking into the matter.

This evening, in an attempt to get a better understanding of what is going on at the site, I called McHale and left a message. I also emailed Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who was able to provide information related to the smoke when I was unable to immediately get the info from MarkWest.

Neither the after-hours phone call nor the email was immediately returned.

Because while I have many questions, the one I keep asking myself is this: If there is nothing wrong, and considering this plant has been in the media spotlight for unflattering reasons previously, why hasn’t a statement been issued?

Editor’s Note: If you have photos or video of the “flare” or have any other info, please feel free to email me at Also: If you’re on Facebook, get our updates in your news feed by “liking” us. Click here to access the page.

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Why Every Pennsylvanian Should Be Offended By the DEP

Not cool, DEP. Not cool.

Not cool, DEP. Not cool.

Let me tell you why you should be offended by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

(And forgive me for starting with a bit of necessary background):

See, when I was at Patch, I broke a story about a local impoundment operated by Southpointe-based Marcellus Shale driller Range Resources in Cecil Township. 

Local government officials there told me about a spate of issues they had with the Worstell impoundment in the wake of being notified by the DEP that Range wanted to make some major modifications there.

Then, when asked why many senior execs from Range and DEP met regarding the impoundment (information uncovered through a public records request on the frac pond) as evidenced by a sign in sheet for a meeting at the department’s regional headquarters, a local DEP spokesman told me it was regarding a leak there that had been repaired (and, of course, there was no further information for me on the matter).

Although Range and DEP told a competing news organization a short time later that there were no issues at the impoundment, and that there had not been a leak as much as a spill from a holding tank, the issue still put the frac pond in the spotlight locally.

Then Cecil Township officials asked the DEP (repeatedly) for a public meeting to get answers to questions and concerns with the Worstell Impoundment.

But the DEP – a public, tax-funded department? It refused.

Oh, they would meet with the supervisors.

Just not publicly. And with no additional visitors (such as local folks who lived near Worstell with specific questions). And with no recording devices – all behind closed doors.

Lemme tell you: My head almost exploded when I heard this was what the DEP had suggested.

Because this is how they tried to make it seem legit: They called the meeting a “conference,” after at one point saying there simply wasn’t enough space for many guests in the regional headquarters where the gathering was being held.

My opinion? Total BS.

And while I could not call the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association’s legal hotline to obtain an opinion on the legitimacy of this excuse (Patch sites are not eligible to be members), the Observer-Reporter’s Emily Petsko did.

Her story can be read here, but here’s what PNA said:

A conference typically involves some training that agency personnel receive from a state or federal authorities, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. Melewsky said that while a conference is permitted to be private under the state Sunshine Act, there is no reason that it cannot be made public.

What’s important is that they explain why they’re not having it publicly, and I think lack of space is not a good excuse,” Melewsky said. “I don’t think crowd size should be an issue. Public participation is a good thing. The fact that many people are interested is a positive, not a negative.”

Melewsky said that by law, a conference must not involve any deliberation of agency business.

Despite some public outcry, the meeting went on as planned.

When I was covering the issue, I couldn’t believe the audacity of the DEP. And, sometimes I pondered if members of the DEP were joking with each other about how they had gotten one over on all those concerned about the Worstell Impoundment with their flimsy technicality.

Then, state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who was publicly outraged by this issue and others involving secret meetings, local officials and the drilling industry/cheerleaders, released some documents he uncovered from a state Right to Know request.

While there are some things in there that really make a person who reads the news nauseated, there is an email thread I found particularly disgusting.

And here, my friends, is why every Pennsylvanian should be offended by the DEP:

Despite major public outcry for more information on public safety and other issues regarding a frac pond, the DEP not only met behind closed doors in a most shady manner, but also snarked about it in internal emails.

In an email dated July 18, 2013, Alan Eichler (who is listed as the environmental program manager for the DEP’s Pittsburgh oil and gas division) wrote to DEP staff:

We should be thinking about potential questions that are going to be asked at the August 9 meeting…uh, I mean conference (it’s not a meeting).

All that email lacked was a proper emoticon, or maybe a “LOL” or even the elusive “LMMFAO!” to make it more juvenile.

Oh, but that’s just part of the fun stuff in the RTK documentation.

There was also a lengthy (and seemingly unsolicited) email from Range Resources spin doctor Matt Pitzarella to Petsko about how everything is just fine at Worstell.

…But why does the DEP have that email? Why would it be in the DEP’s Worstell file? Did Pitzarella blind CC a DEP spokesman on the matter? Was it meant to be talking points after that same DEP spokesman told me for publication that there was a “leak” at the site? 

There was even an email with state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, who has long been buddy-buddy with the Marcellus Shale folks. His suggestion? A pre-meeting so the whole thing didn’t turn into a “kangaroo court.”

Timmy, I thought you were elected to do the people's work?

Timmy, I thought you were elected to do the people’s work?

The coziness among the DEP and the industry/its cheerleaders is a little startling to me.

Because the DEP? Those are supposed to be the guys on our side – the guys with the public’s interest at heart.

I have long considered myself a student of the Sunshine Law, and those on boards I have covered during years of community reporting will attest: I am, perhaps, more aggressive about closed-doors meetings than most of my colleagues. I always insist that the board chairman in question do what he is supposed to: Announce, for the record, why the hell they are going into executive session.

Could be litigation. Could be personnel. Could be property acquisition. Could be there is a state conference that an organization such as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association is hosting and all the members of a local school board want to attend (totally cool, the Sunshine Law dictates).

One thing it never is: “Um, this subject has, like, caused us a LOT of bad publicity, and it would be awfully inconvenient for us to actually sit down and answer questions from, like, anyone who wants to ask one from the public. So, yeah. We’re gonna just go ahead and meet – call it a conference. Also, no recording devices. No big.”

But that’s pretty much what the state Department of Environmental Protection did.

Editor’s Note: To access the Right to Know files released by White, click here. Also, if you’d like to tell Alan Eichler how you feel about his email, he can be reached by calling 412 442-4024. -amanda

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