Pennsylvania environmental regulators have announced that natural gas drillers are close to ending one of the most controversial practices associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. According to a report from the Associated Press, the state’s Marcellus shale natural gas drillers have promised to stop sending fracking wastewater, which often contains toxic chemicals, to sewage treatment plants that discharge into the streams and rivers that provide drinking water to millions of Pennsylvanian’s by May 19. Right now, Pennsylvania is the only state that allows most of its fracking wastewater to be treated and dumped in rivers and streams.
Just last week, we reported that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) asked natural gas drillers to refrain from sending fracking wastewater to water treatment plants in the state. The stateâ€™s request – which does not have the force of law – followed research by Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority experts suggesting that the natural gas industry was a contributing factor to elevated levels of bromide in the Allegheny and Beaver rivers in Western Pennsylvania. Though bromides are non-toxic salt compounds, when they react with the disinfectants used by municipal water treatment plants, compounds called brominated trihalomethanes (THMs) are created. Exposure and ingestion of THMS has been tied to several types of cancer and birth defects.
The DEPâ€™s request was followed by an acknowledgment from the Marcellus Shale Coalition that fracking wastewater discharges into Pennsylvania rivers and streams were partly responsible for higher levels of bromides and other pollutants that have been measured in western Pennsylvania waterways. According to the Associated Press, that acknowledgement constituted a sharp attitude change by the industry, which for years has rejected criticism of its environmental practices. Until now, both the industry and the state argued that the river discharges were harmless to humans and wildlife.
Now the Associated Press is reporting that acting DEP Secretary Michael Krancer says all drillers in the state will stop sending fracking wastewater to treatment plants by May 19. Instead of transporting the waste to the plants, it will be disposed of via injection wells deep underground, most of which are in Ohio. Some will also be recycled.
The Associated Press is also reporting that even while the natural gas drilling industry in Pennsylvania as a whole was insisting the fracking waste posed no risk to drinking water supplies, some companies were concerned about what they were doing. According to the article, Krancer’s predecessor at the DEP, John Hanger, was approached in 2008 by several companies, including Range Resources, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Atlas Energy, who warned the state’s permissive rules regarding the disposal of fracking wastewater were putting rivers and streams at risk.
The companies have been working on alternative disposal means since then, the Associated Press said. Their efforts became more intense after media scrutiny put a spotlight on disposal methods in Pennsylvania, and after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put pressure on the state to tighten up its regulations.