Former Natural Gas Worker Pleads Guilty To Damaging Marcellus Shale Pipeline

By: Christopher A. Iacono 

On April 4, 2012 in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Henry Benton, a former employee of a company engaged in the construction of a portion of the Marcellus Shale pipeline, pleaded guilty to a one count felony Information charging him with knowingly engaging in an excavation activity resulting in damage to a natural gas pipeline exceeding $50,000.00 under 49 U.S.C. § 60123(d).

According to the Information, Mr. Benton was a former employee of a construction and engineering company that was engaged to construct a natural gas pipeline, known as the Emig Line, in Cogan House Township, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania.  The pipeline was to be used to transport natural gas from Marcellus Shale wells to other pipelines for storage, transmission and distribution throughout the United States.

According to the Information, Mr. Benton disregarded the location information and markings established by the operator of the pipeline facility, and used a track hoe excavator to excavate and then damage, dent and open holes in a section of the Emig Line.  The claimed cost to replace the damaged section of the pipeline is $208,233.08.  Following the incident, Mr. Benton was terminated from his employment after only five weeks on the job.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, Mr. Benton will be incarcerated for at least twelve months, but not more than eighteen months, followed by three years supervised release.  The maximum penalty for the offense is five years incarceration.  Additionally, Mr. Benton will pay restitution in an amount to be determined by the court of more than $50,000.00, but no more than the cost to replace the damaged section of the pipeline.  Under the plea agreement, if the court imposes a sentence different from that agreed to by the parties, then both Mr. Benton and the Government have the right to withdraw from the agreement.

United States District Judge John E. Jones, III, who is presiding over the matter, has scheduled a pre-sentencing conference for July 30, 2012. A sentencing date has not been scheduled.

The prosecution of Mr. Benton is another example of federal and state law enforcement agencies increasing their focus on Marcellus Shale in recent months.  In March 2011, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Environmental Crimes Section filed criminal charges against the owner of a waste hauler service and his company for allegedly dumping wastewater from natural gas drilling at various locations in Southern Pennsylvania.  In addition to improper waste handling and disposal, federal and state authorities are focused on individuals and corporations that release contaminates into the environment, fail to truthfully and timely report violations and endanger natural resources and wildlife as result of the Marcellus Shale drilling.  As the number of Marcellus Shale wells being drilled increases over the coming years, so will the attention of federal and state law enforcement.  Accordingly, we will no doubt see an increase in the number of criminal investigations and prosecutions of those involved with the Marcellus Shale pipeline.

Reference: United States v. Benton, 4:11-CR-00208 (M.D. Pa.)

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