CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A West Virginia oil driller claims state regulators have targeted his business for multiple violations because he’s gay, an allegation denied by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Gary Payne told the Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail his Elkview company, Patriot Energy, has been in the state’s crosshairs while more serious infractions by other drillers have been overlooked.
DEP officials denied Payne’s allegations and released a telephone voicemail recording in which Payne threatened to physically assault an inspector. He also repeatedly used a gay slur.
The businessman said he has been targeted because DEP inspectors believe “gays don’t belong in the oil and gas business.”
Payne, 47, contends he’s a responsible business owner who keeps his rigs and tanks clean and freshly painted. He says he just wants to be treated the same as everyone else in the industry.
DEP officials said the numerous citations inspectors have issued against Payne have “nothing to do with sexual orientation.”
“There is no substantiated, objective evidence to support such a claim, and the DEP denies the allegation,” said Tom Aluise, a DEP spokesman.
In the telephone message left with a DEP administrator last week, Payne said the inspector he threatened to assault would be humiliated when people found out he had been beaten up by a gay man.
He also threatened to bring 10,000 “screaming” gays to picket at the DEP office in Kanawha City, according to the voicemail message.
Within the past two weeks, the DEP cited one of Payne’s storage tanks with four violation notices.
The agency alleges that 20 to 50 barrels of oil leaked from a storage tank and an unknown amount of oil eventually spilled into a tributary of Indian Creek, which flows into the Elk River, according to the violation notice.
Payne insists there were less than two barrels of oil in the storage tank before the spill. He said an oil truck had drained the tank and hauled away most of the petroleum.
“We are a responsible operator,” Payne said. “Things happen. This could have happened to anybody.”
Since January 2010, the DEP has issued 26 violation notices written by two different inspectors against Payne’s wells and storage tanks.
Aluise said Payne never appealed any of the violations or contested the substance of the citations.
Payne owns all or part of 23 oil and gas wells in northern Kanawha County, he said. The wells produce 10 to 20 barrels of oil per week.
Payne points to other competitors’ nearby storage tanks and drilling sites that he said should be cited with violations. One tank was rusted and leaking oil.
Aluise defended inspectors’ work.
“DEP inspectors work hard to ensure that the state’s oil and gas operators comply with the terms of their permits and operate in ways that are protective of the environment,” he said. “Mr. Payne has exhibited an inability to do either on a consistent basis and has been justifiably penalized by this agency, as it penalizes any operator who is non-compliant with state regulations.”