Shale Drillers Eager to Move Wastewater on Barges
16 December 2012
By Emily DeMarco
The shale gas drilling industry wants to move its wastewater by
barge on rivers and lakes across the country. But the U.S. Coast
Guard, which regulates the nation’s waterways, must first decide
whether it’s safe.
“It may be hazardous,” said Commander Michael Roldan, chief of the
Coast Guard’s Hazardous Material Division, stressing the word
‘may.’ “If it is, it would not be allowed to ship under bulk.”
Right now, he pointed out during an interview with PublicSource,
it can’t be shipped by barge, even though there has been confusion
in Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Ohio about whether it could be.
The Coast Guard has been considering whether to allow the industry
to use the waterways for about a year, according to Roldan, who
said the question came up when the Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh
-- the local office of the Coast Guard -- called the Washington
office to clarify whether bulk transport was allowed after
Marcellus Shale drillers began making inquiries.
The Coast Guard’s decision would affect more than Pittsburgh’s
iconic three rivers. Nearly 12,000 miles of waterways could be
open to these waterborne behemoths, each carrying 10,000 barrels
Like so many questions involving the shale gas industry, it’s a
divisive one. Environmentalists said the possibility of a spill
that could contaminate Pittsburgh’s rivers with chemicals isn’t
worth the risk. But industry officials who advocate waterway
transport said barges are the safest, and cheapest, way to move
A barge accident would be a “massive catastrophe,” said Steve
Hvozdovich, Marcellus campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action,
a national environmental advocacy organization.
“It’s not just a contamination of a waterway,” Hvozdovich said.
“You’re talking about the contamination of the drinking water
supply for about half a million people....It seems like a very bad
However, industry officials and transportation experts counter
that other industrial materials, some toxic, are moved on barges
now. They include chlorine, hydrochloric acid and anhydrous
ammonia. Why should the drilling industry be treated differently?
Anyone who says moving the wastewater is a danger doesn’t know
what’s on the waters already, said John Jack, vice president of
business development and operations for GreenHunter Water, a
company that handles wastewater for major oil companies.
“Look what’s going down the waters right now,” Jack said, “highly
toxic stuff....There’s nothing in our product that’s hazardous.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires about five millions
gallons of water per well. Water is combined with chemicals and
sand and shot deep underground, releasing pockets of gas from
shale rock formations.
Depending on the well, about 15 to 80 percent of what was injected
returns to the surface. That’s called ‘flowback.’ Plus, the well
continues to regurgitate naturally occurring water from inside the
shale, which is called ‘produced water.’ Both liquids become
wastewater, which is often called “brine.”
Complications arise for the Coast Guard’s analysis because
companies use proprietary mixtures of chemicals in fracking. And,
salt, hydrocarbons and radioactive elements that occur naturally
underground catch a free ride with the watery mixture to the
“If there wasn’t the variability, this would be a much easier
process,” Roldan said.
The agency is determining appropriate ‘ceilings’ for each
component in the wastewater. Companies that want to ship by bulk
would have to test their wastewater first. If the components are
under the Coast Guard’s ceilings, companies would be given the
green light, assuming approval.
The Coast Guard’s biggest concern about the wastewater is what
Roldan calls the ‘bathtub ring’ effect inside the barges. Just as,
after many showers and baths, calcium in tap water can leave a
ring around the tub, radioactive particles in the wastewater may
accumulate inside the barge.
Workers and inspectors on the barges could be at risk after
long-term exposure, he said, and the agency would likely require
regular testing of the barges for radioactivity.
Roldan couldn’t say when the Coast Guard’s determination of
whether wastewater can be safely moved on barges would be
complete. In part, that is because the nationwide issue is
complicated. For example, experts from the Environmental
Protection Agency and the Departments of Transportation and Energy
have weighed in already.
Others, including a committee established by the White House, will
likely review the draft proposal.
The agency plans to publish its proposal on transporting
wastewater in the Federal Register. Then, the public and the
industry will have an opportunity to weigh in.
But there has been great confusion at the ports about the rules.
Officials at GreenHunter, which moves wastewater for some of the
largest drilling companies in the Marcellus and Utica Shales by
truck, planned to start using barges before the end of the year
because they believed it was allowed, Jack said. They’ve been
investing in five terminals in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“I’ve had the regional commanders out to our sites and nobody told
us that we couldn’t” move it by barge, he said. His understanding,
he said, is that it’s being done in Texas and Louisiana.
The Pittsburgh office of the Coast Guard declined to comment.
But Roldan’s reaction was immediate when asked whether any company
is allowed to do this. “No, they’re not allowed,” he said. “You
may want to tell them before we catch them.”
However, he said he understood the confusion because of the way
the current regulations are worded. “A liberal reading … could
lead to a misinterpretation,” he said.
One question the agency couldn’t answer is the expected volume of
wastewater that would be shipped over the rivers.
“We’ve been asking ourselves this,” Roldan said.
In Pennsylvania alone, about 23 million barrels of wastewater were
generated in 2011, according to PublicSource calculations using
data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental
Protection’s Oil & Gas Reporting website. The data are
self-reported by the producers and are not vetted by the DEP.
While about 99 percent of the waste from shale drilling is just
water, the remaining one percent is salt, chemicals, and
A spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition declined to answer
questions about moving waste on barges and instead emphasized the
industry’s commitment to recycling wastewater.
Today, new technology has increased the capacity for on-site
recycling, but that is costly. Transporting the waste off-site to
disposal or treatment locations is still needed by the industry.
Less road wear and tear
Shale gas companies have good reason to eye the waterways.
Transporting wastewater by barges has environmental, safety and
economic benefits, Jack, of GreenHunter, said. For example, a
major drilling company would save 58,000 trucking hours by using
And trucks have about 2,000 accidents for every barge accident, he
said, citing data from the DOT and the Coast Guard.
James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh
Commission, an agency that advocates for waterway transport, said
using barges is a good idea.
“The more that it can be moved on waterways, the less wear and
tear of roads,” he said, adding that barges also produce less air
pollution than trucks.
And they’re a fraction of the cost. Barges cost only about 10
percent of the cost to move the waste by truck, said Jim Kruse,
director of the Center for Ports and Waterways Institute at Texas
A&M University. They are 20 to 30 percent cheaper than trains,
The change would not eliminate trucks because they'd still be
needed to get the wastewater from the drill rigs to the barges.
Three gas drilling companies have already approached
Pittsburgh-based Campbell Transportation Co., about moving their
wastewater by barge, said Peter Stephaich, one of Campbell’s
“We are regulated by just about everybody,” he said, listing
federal and state agencies that oversee barge companies. Stephaich
said he’s confident that wastewater will be moved responsibly.
“If we move it, we’ll move it within the rules,” he said. “If the
costs are too high, we won’t do it.”
Operators like Campbell may have to purchase new equipment,
retrofit their infrastructure, and train their crews.
Benjamin Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University
about 60 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, is one expert who didn’t
know about the Coast Guard’s review.
“Oh crap,” he said. “A lot of things could go wrong.”
For example, wastewater contains bromides. Bromides transform into
carcinogens when they are pumped through water treatment
facilities, Stout said.
If there was a barge accident, the treatment facilities would have
to shut their intake valves of river water, he said. Cities such
as Pittsburgh and Wheeling use water from the Ohio River for
(Stout is a board member of FracTracker, a non-profit that
disseminates data about the shale gas industry. Both FracTracker
and PublicSource are funded, in part, by the Heinz Endowments.)
Despite his alarm, Stout said he is glad that the Coast Guard is
studying the issue because it’s one more determination about an
industry that currently doesn’t offer a lot of transparency.
Asked whether the Coast Guard is being lobbied by the industry,
Roldan said: “We’re not really feeling pressure. We could deny
Reach Emily DeMarco at 412-315-0262 or firstname.lastname@example.org.