Pennsylvania Drillers Asked Not to take Fracking Waste to Water Treatment Plants

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has asked natural gas drillers to refrain from sending fracking wastewater to water treatment plants in the state. The DEP’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 waterways in the western part of the state, according to a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a drilling technique that involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. Once a well has been fracked, the used fracking fluid that comes back up from the well has to be dealt with. In Pennsylvania, such waste is frequently hauled to wastewater treatment plants where it is diluted and dumped into rivers and streams that serve as sources of drinking water.

According to the Post-Gazette, fracking wastewater contains, among other things, high concentrations of bromides, a non-toxic salt compound that reacts with disinfectants used by municipal treatment plants to create brominated trihalomethanes (THMs). Exposure and ingestion of THMS has been tied to several types of cancer and birth defects.

In Western Pennsylvania, research by Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority experts suggests that the natural gas industry is a contributing factor to elevated levels of bromide in the Allegheny and Beaver rivers, the Post-Gazette said. Even the Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents most of the companies tapping the formation’s natural gas in Pennsylvania, has acknowledged the validity of that research.

In a statement issued yesterday, the Pennsylvania DEP “called on all Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling operators to cease by May 19 delivering wastewater from shale gas extraction to 15 facilities that currently accept it.” Recent surface water sampling has found elevated levels of bromide in rivers in the Western Pennsylvania, where the majority of natural gas drilling is taking place, the statement said.

“While there are several possible sources for bromide other than shale drilling wastewater, we believe that if operators would stop giving wastewater to facilities that continue to accept it under the special provision, bromide concentrations would quickly and significantly decrease,” acting DEP secretary Michael Krancer said.

According to the Post-Gazette, the DEP request is not a departmental “order” that carries legal weight. Drillers have until May 19 to stop taking Marcellus shale drilling wastewater to the treatment facilities. A DEP spokesperson said the department believes it can “achieve voluntary compliance,” but will revisit the issue in 30 days. “We could then use our authority to take the next step with the treatment facilities or drilling industry or both,” the spokesperson said.

The facilities covered by the DEP request include: Clairton City Municipal Authority and McKeesport City Municipal Authority, both in Allegheny County; Johnstown Redevelopment Authority, Cambria County; Ridgway Borough Wastewater Treatment Plant, Elk County; Franklin Township Sewage Authority, Greene County; Tunnelton Liquids Co., Josephine Treatment, and Hart Resource Technologies Inc., all in Indiana County; Brockway Area Sewage Authority, Punxsutawney Borough Municipal Authority, and Reynoldsville Borough Authority, all in Jefferson County; New Castle City Sanitation Authority, Lawrence County; Sunbury Generation, Snyder County; Franklin Brine Treatment Corp., Venango County; Waste Treatment Corp., Warren County; and the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority, Westmoreland County.

Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition told the Post-Gazette that the organization is taking the state’s request “seriously.”

“This is the time to step up,” she said. “What the public is asking of us is a level of confidence that the commonwealth’s waterways are being treated by the natural gas industry with the respect and care it deserves.”

Environmentalists supported the DEP action, but some questioned whether all drillers would voluntarily comply.

“It’s great DEP finally recognizes it’s a real problem,” Myron Arnowitt, state director of Clean Water Action, told the Post-Gazette. “But on the flip side, the state needs to take some action and not just make voluntary requests.”

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