DEP: Little headway in Reno cleanup

Inspection reports from the state Department of Environmental Protection show Petro Erie has made little progress in the last four months cleaning up the oil well wastewater spill that contaminated Bellows Spring, which serves as a source of water for homes and businesses in Reno.

Alan Wolf, a DEP water quality specialist, on Nov. 13 inspected wastewater storage tanks and the contaminated spill area and found no activity at the site, according to the DEP. Wolf reported he found some contaminated soil from the earthen dike surrounding the tanks was excavated, put in piles and covered with plastic. However, oil staining was still visible inside the dike area.

There was another excavated trench at the site with water in it, according to photos taken during the DEP inspection.

Petro Erie’s appeals of DEP’s order to rectify matters, including site cleanup and addressing violations, remain pending. However, DEP and Petro Erie notified the Environmental Hearing Board in a joint letter on Oct. 17 that they are in settlement discussions over the appeals. They did not set a deadline as to when those discussions would conclude.

In both appeals filed by Petro Erie, the company claimed it “lacked the financial ability to comply with the order.” Because of Petro Erie’s appeals, DEP has refrained from commenting publicly on its cleanup order.

Wolf first inspected the site of the wastewater spill on July 21 in response to a complaint and found a drain valve open with wastewater fluid flowing from oil well wastewater storage tanks across the ground and into a wooded area toward Bellows Spring, according to DEP.

Wolf turned off the valve and took field measurements in the spill area to confirm the contamination, according to DEP. He also contacted Harry Rhoades, owner of Erie County-based Petro Erie, to advise him of the spill and possible impact to Reno’s water supply.

Wolf and other DEP staff, on July 31, met with Rhoades at the site of the spill, according to a DEP inspection report, to discuss the violations the agency said it found and the steps needed to clean up the spill.

On Aug. 3, DEP again talked with Rhoades about the cleanup and “clearly communicated the importance and urgency of starting the cleanup process at the site,” according to DEP’s inspection report.

DEP reported “Mr. Rhoades seemed to understand.”

An Aug. 29 inspection report by Wolf found Petro Erie had started excavating soil contaminated by the spill and putting it in piles covered with plastic near the Lower Reno 6 oil well operated by the company. The piles of contaminated soil, however, have not been removed for proper disposal.

On Oct. 23, Robert Bechtel, DEP oil and gas operations environmental manager, wrote a letter to Petro Erie that outlined specific actions the company did not complete as required by the agency’s July 21 and Aug. 16 cleanup orders.

Among actions not completed, according to Bechtel’s letter, were submitting complete plans for cleaning up the contamination and well production wastewater; describing the arrangements to restore and, if needed, replacement of the source of water for Reno’s water supply; and reimbursing Venango Water Co. and Aqua Pennsylvania for their costs to respond to the emergency and supply replacement water (Aqua Pennsylvania is the Montgomery County-based utility that received an emergency order on Aug. 12 from the state Public Utilities Commission to operate Venango Water Co.).

Bechtel’s letter also included actions needed to correct other violations found during inspections of other nearby oil wells and wastewater storage tanks operated by Petro Erie.


David Hess served as DEP secretary under Govs. Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker.