Steel mills used to stand here, along Salt Springs Road in Northwest Youngstown. They came down decades ago, replaced by massive, modern warehouses.
And for the last two weeks, guys in blue and yellow hazmat suits, with tanker trucks and backhoes, have fanned out across the lawns, parking lots and ditches, following the path of a storm sewer from one of those warehouses, down a ravine, into a creek and eventually into the Mahoning River. Booms and vacuum trucks are skimming off an oily sheen on the water, while other crews dig up sediment.
All of this is designed to capture the brine, drilling mud and toxic chemicals that state regulators say were intentionally dumped down the storm sewer on Jan. 31st.
Youngstown Mayor Chuck Sammarone says, ‘Where was the oversight?’
“Here’s what I don’t understand. You knew the track record of this guy, so they should have been checking not even daily, but by the second, as to what’s going on.”
“This guy” is 62-year-old Ben Lupo, who runs D&L Energy and a score of other companies that haul and dispose of the left-overs from hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas.
He’s been in the business for nearly 30 years. And together, his companies have racked up more than 100 environmental violations. He also ran a deep injection well that Ohio officials say triggered earthquakes here two years ago.
Still, until yesterday, none of the cases brought criminal charges.
Lauren Schroeder is a retired biology professor whose been studying the Mahoning River pretty much since he came to Youngstown nearly a half century ago.
He says dumping like this is a throwback to the bad old days.
“It’s just astounding that this would be going on today, just atrocious.”
Especially as the Mahoning has been recovering. People might not swim in it yet, but they fish and kayak.
And it’s far from what he calls the “Dante’s Inferno” days, when the river served as an open sewer for steel mills
“The temperature often exceeded 100 degrees, in fact it usually exceeded 100 degrees. There were 70,000 pounds of oil that floated down the river each day -- high levels of cyanide…”
In comparison, drilling wastewater may seem mild. But Schroeder says the river remains fragile.
And he says it’s important to make an example of this illegal dumping now because there will be lots more fracking waste to dispose of.
“That’s a huge cost to the companies and there’s a big incentive to get rid it as cheaply as you can.”
Ben Lupo has pleaded not guilty to the charge. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison. His company declined repeated interview requests.
When it first acted on an anonymous tip about the dumping two weeks ago, the EPA says Lupo claimed he thought it was legal. Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally find that hard to believe.
“There is absolutely no way he could have even thought for a second that that would have been an appropriate means of disposal.”
What’s also noticeable to many here is that other drillers aren’t exactly rushing to Lupo’s defense.
“I have no desire to talk to Mr. Lupo.”
That’s Tom Stewart of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, which is applauding the criminal charges and revocation of Lupo’s operating permits.
Dave Kaminski directs energy policy for the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce and notes drillers have billions invested in Ohio, and haven’t yet collected much of a return.
“It would seem to me you would have a great incentive to ensure this is done right, because public policy and opinion could flip on you in a week if you really messed it up.”
For now, federal and state investigators are trying to figure out just how big a mess this was. They say Ben Lupo has acknowledged dumping fracking waste water into storm sewers as many as six times since September.