Coast Guard Wants To Allow Frack Waste
Environmentalists horrified, but service says barge transport is
safer and can reduce pollution
16 December 2013
By Kevon Begos, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH - The U.S. Coast Guard wants to allow barges filled
with fracking wastewater to ply the nation's rivers on their way
toward disposal. Many environmentalists are horrified, but
industry groups say barge transport has its advantages.
Now, the wastewater is usually disposed of by truck or rail, which
poses more risk for accidents than shipping by barge, according to
a government report. And one barge can carry about the same amount
of waste as 100 exhaust-spewing trucks.
The disagreements go to the core of the fight over shale gas
drilling. Environmentalists say the chemicals in fracking waste
are a tragedy in the making, but the industry says far greater
amounts of toxic chemicals are already being moved by barge,
including waste from oil drilling.
If the U.S. Coast Guard has its way, barges carrying fracking
waste will join those hauling coal on regular routes up and down
the Ohio River.
In 2010, U.S. barges carried 2,000 tons of radioactive waste,
almost 1.6 million tons of sulfuric acid and 315 million tons of
petroleum products, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"We expect that shale gas wastewater can be transported just as
safely," said Jennifer Carpenter, of American Waterways Operators,
a trade group based in Washington, D.C.
Extracting natural gas trapped in shale formations requires
pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, sand and
chemicals into the ground to break apart rock and free the gas.
Some of that water, along with large quantities of existing
underground water, returns to the surface, and it can contain high
levels of salt, drilling chemicals, heavy metals and naturally
occurring low-level radiation.
The Marcellus Shale formation, underlying large parts of
Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and some neighboring states, is
the nation's most productive natural gas field. Thousands of new
wells have been drilled there since 2008, and hundreds of millions
of gallons of wastewater needs to be disposed of each year.
Some states, such as Texas and Ohio, have many underground waste
disposal wells. But Pennsylvania has only a few, meaning the
leftovers have to be shipped elsewhere.
The Coast Guard proposal says barge companies want to move waste
from the Marcellus region "via inland waterways to storage or
reprocessing centers and final disposal sites in Ohio, Texas, and
Louisiana." That means large quantities of waste could be shipped
on major rivers such as the Ohio; one of its main tributaries, the
Monongahela; and the Mississippi.
Critics say that if there were an accident, it could threaten the
drinking water supply of millions of people. They also cite the
uncertainty around what's in that toxic mix. The Coast Guard is
proposing to address that by requiring chemical testing of each
barge load before shipment; test results would also be kept on
file for two years.
A Marcellus wastewater spill wouldn't be any different from other
threats, said Jerry Schulte, the emergency response manager for
the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, which has
members in eight states. Occasional spills and other pollution are
"a part of life" on industrialized waterways such as the Ohio, he
Municipal water suppliers also monitor river water, and if there's
a spill nearby, they shut intake valves until the problem has
One of the largest river spills in the region's history took place
in 1988, when an on-shore storage tank ruptured in Pittsburgh,
spilling about a million gallons of fuel oil into the river. The
sludge flowed down the Ohio River, forcing many water suppliers to
shut intakes for a week.
But according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Government
Accountability Office, the fatality, injury and air pollution
rates for barge transportation are far lower than truck or rail
The Coast Guard is reviewing the comments from both sides, and it
has the authority to approve or modify the rule. But there is no
timeline for a decision, spokesman Carlos Diaz said.
A leading industry group supports using barges for the waste but
isn't happy with the details of the Coast Guard proposal.
In a Dec. 6 letter, the Marcellus Shale Coalition hailed the
potential to reduce the waste being transported by highway but
complained the proposal set the threshold too low for naturally
occurring radiation, which would effectively prevent wastewater
from being shipped by barge.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
couldn't immediately say Friday whether they have a position on
the barge wastewater issue.