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DEC fines Amherst company for tainted storm water runoff

U.S. Energy Development Corp., an Amherst natural gas drilling company, is facing $187,500 in fines from the state Department of Environmental Conservation for causing Yeager Brook in Cattaraugus County to become cloudy with sediment from drilling sites that washed into the stream during rainstorms late last year and earlier this month.

The DEC, in a complaint filed Tuesday, said its officers first noticed in August 2010 that runoff from roads leading to U.S. Energy gas wells in McKean County in Pennsylvania was causing Yeager Brook, which runs through Allegany State Park in the Southern Tier, to turn cloudy and run milky white.

In response to the original allegations, the company agreed in December 2010 to pay a penalty of up to $10,000 and to take steps to stop erosion along the roads leading to its drilling sites and prevent sediment from running off into Yeager Brook.

Despite that agreement, DEC officials charged that the brook was clouded with runoff sediment during three different rainstorms in September and December 2011, as well as on Jan. 17, because U.S. Energy failed to install adequate systems to prevent erosion and stop storm water from running into the creek from its drilling roads.

"This enforcement action should provide a strong deterrent to other oil and gas well operators in New York and neighboring states whose operations impact New York's natural resources," said Steven Russo, the DEC's deputy commissioner.

"We will not allow U.S. Energy's actions in Pennsylvania to negatively impact New York's waters," he said in a statement. "U.S. Energy must ensure that proper storm water controls are put in place to prevent future violations."

U.S. Energy issued a statement Tuesday saying it planned to vigorously defend itself against the charges and the proposed fine.

"U.S. Energy is not aware of any issues at the wells in question," the company said in the statement. "The wells are in Pennsylvania, and the company's operations are regulated there by the Department of Environmental Protection We were told that DEC alerted Pennsylvania's DEP of its concerns. DEP asked DEC for a meeting to discuss DEC's concerns for validation, but DEC never responded back to DEP."

U.S. Energy said it was notified by the DEC of the latest alleged violations "a few days ago" and responded to the charges on Tuesday, "but was informed by DEC that it had already issued a press release, giving the company no chance to respond."

Emily DeSantis, a DEC spokeswoman, noted that the agency first cited U.S. Energy for sediment runoff into the brook during an incident that occurred in August 2010.

"We filed a complaint for further enforcement actions on the previous consent orders because U.S. Energy had not addressed the violations in the past year, as well as for new violations that occurred this year and last year," she said.

The DEC is seeking $112,500 in fines against U.S. Energy for the three most recent incidents, along with an additional $75,000 in penalties for failing to comply with the two previous consent orders stemming from violations that allegedly took place in August and November 2010.

The DEC also is ordering the company to install adequate storm water and erosion controls to prevent any future incidents.

U.S. Energy officials could not be reached to comment on Tuesday.