Disposal of Fracking Wastewater an Unsettled Question in New York

With New York regulators considering new regulations that would open the state to natural gas drilling via hydraulic fracturing (fracking), concerns are mounting about the disposal of what would likely be millions of gallons of fracking wastewater produced at wells throughout New York’s Marcellus shale region. According to report from the Associated Press, the issue is one of the most contentious in the overall debate surrounding fracking, but environmentalists say New York’s proposed fracking regulations do not adequately address these concerns.

Fracking is a natural gas and oil drilling technique in which millions of gallons fracking fluid – a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals – is injected deep underground at high pressure to free natural gas deposits trapped in shale rock formations. The process produces millions of gallons of briny wastewater per fracking well, which is contaminated with trace amounts of the chemicals used in fracking fluids, some of which may be carcinogenic. According to the Associated Press, fracking flowback water also brings up such naturally occurring contaminants as barium, strontium and radium.

Last summer, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued draft regulations that if approved, would open up 85 percent of the state’s Marcellus shale region to fracking. As we reported previously, the DEC has indicated it could start issuing drilling permits by the end of this year, once those regulations are approved. There are currently more than 60 outstanding fracking permits awaiting approval by state regulators.

According to the Associated Press, the DEC’s draft regulations give drillers three options for the disposal of fracking wastewater:

  • • Transport the waste to a treatment facility and discharge the treated water into a river or reuse it for another drilling project;
  • • Ship it out of state for deep-well injection disposal; or
  • • Recycle it on-site for drilling multiple wells.

Ultimately, it will be up to natural gas drillers to decide what disposal methods to use.

“All of those options have impacts; none of them is particularly benign,” Kate Sinding, a staffer of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told the Associated Press. “What’s missing in the DEC review is, what’s the impact of each available technology? They shouldn’t be deciding on treatment options when issuing permits until they have the science on the impact of each option.”

For example, Pennsylvania researchers have found increased levels of bromide in rivers used for gas wastewater disposal, the Associated Press said. If bromide makes its way to drinking water intakes and combines with chlorine at drinking water treatment facilities, chemicals called trihalomethanes are produced. According to the Associated Press, some studies have been linked trihalomethanes to increased cancer rates after years of exposure.

Last May, Pennsylvania regulators moved to stop municipal wastewater treatment plants from accepting fracking waste because of concerns about excessive salt concentrations found in rivers downstream from facilities that accepted the waste.

Injecting fracking waste into underground wells has been suspected of causing earthquakes in some places. In fact, just last month, Ohio environmental officials shuttered a fracking injection well in Youngstown, following a 4.0 magnitude earthquake that occurred Saturday. As we reported at the time, the earthquake was the 11th since last March to occur near the injection well. Similar occurrences have been linked to fracking wastewater injection wells in Arkansas, Texas and West Virginia.

According to the Associated Press, environmental groups, including the NRDC, favor legislation currently pending in New York that would that would close a loophole exempting oil and gas waste from the state hazardous waste law that applies to other industries. The bill was passed by the Assembly last month, but has yet to make it out of committee in the Senate.

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