Oil, Gas Wells Face Waste Hurdle:
Sewage plants ordered by DEP to curb processing wastewater from drilling

Pittsburgh Business Times
31 October 2008 [Modified: 3 November 2008]

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which has been working to investigate and dilute high levels of dissolved solids in the Monongahela River, has ordered nine sewage plants to curb their processing of wastewater hauled from oil and gas drilling sites.

It’s a move that could not only take a bite out of the bottom lines of local sewage authorities, but also could reduce drilling activity for some energy producers.

Alerted by U.S. Steel, which recorded high total dissolved solids (TDS) in evaporated water at its Clairton coke plant, the DEP found measurements of these non-health-threatening contaminants to be more than 50 percent higher than the maximum standard of 500 mg per liter.

Until the concentrations come down, the DEP said, companies operating wells will need to either find storage for their wastewater or haul it to sewage plants farther away. Previously, these companies sent wastewater from drilling directly to the local sewage plants, who in turn treated the water before flowing it into the Mon river.

The plants impacted all discharge treated water into the Mon.

Multiple causes

DEP and processing plant officials are careful to note that recent dry conditions in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia account for much of the problem. TDS particles are so small they cannot be filtered out of the water. Instead, they are typically diluted by rain water. Considered a secondary contaminant, TDS can make water taste and smell odd.

Yet another contributing factor being explored by the DEP is wastewater, called brine for its salt content, and water used to break up rocks from oil and gas drilling operations, called frac water. Concerns that this water contains high levels of TDS prompted the DEP’s recent order to sewage plants to accept only 1 percent of their daily influx from such sources.

But Louis D’Amico, who heads Pennsylvania’s Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA), said cutting energy producers off from water disposal is tantamount to ordering a shutdown of operations.

“I’ve had several operators call me, frankly, in panic mode,” D’Amico said. “And I don’t have any answer for them.”

Terry Jacobs, president of Penneco Oil Co. Inc., said the order already has curbed some of his operations, reducing drilling activity from two rigs to one, as the company struggles to find enough storage for wastewater from its 800 wells in Pennsylvania.

“If we can’t dispose of water, basically, we don’t generate,” Jacobs said.

In addition to DEP’s order to limit well waste at local plants, facilities across the state also received a letter Oct. 16 outlining procedures they need to follow if they accept wastewater from drilling operations.

Believe it or not, said DEP spokeswoman Helen Humphreys, the notice, sent to remind sewage plant operators that they must seek adjustments to their permits if they accept such waste, is completely independent from the high TDS levels found in the Mon the week before.

Rising Demand for treatment

Humphreys said the agency prepared the letter to address what it saw creeping up in the waste disposal world — namely that there is more of it to be done, and municipal sewage plants may not be the best place to do it.

The demand on municipal sewage plants to process gas well waste has been gradually increasing over the past few years, when development of the rock formation Marcellus Shale began to grow. The geological slab, which stretches from New York through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia, is thought to contain large quantities of natural gas.

The problem, Humphreys said, is that “sewage treatment plants’ primary function is to treat sewage” — biological waste such as bacteria. They are not designed to treat chemical well waste, which in large quantities may disrupt the treatment processes of the plant, she said.

“Additional alternatives for disposal may be needed,” Humphreys said.

Still, she pointed out, the letter, which outlines an extensive series of tests to be performed on incoming wastewater, is not based on new rules but rather established regulations under Clean Water legislation.

Perhaps it’s the timing of this reminder that has sewage plant managers on edge.

Sam McCullough, plant supervisor at Waynesburg Borough, said his facility has stopped accepting drilling wastewater altogether, which accounted for up to 5 percent of its work.

With the testing requirements outlined in the letter, “it’s not worth doing,” he said.

Drilling wastewater halt

In a press release, the DEP estimated that up to 20 percent of local sewage plants’ water intake comes from drilling.

“This is kind of new for everybody,” said Joe Rost, executive director at the McKeesport Municipal Authority. “I’m hoping cool heads prevail.”

Rost said he doesn’t expect the restriction to significantly impact his plant. Still, he spent Wednesday calling local producers who dispose at his plant to explain the DEP regulations outlined in the letter.

“We don’t want to overreact to this,” he said. “The gas companies do need to get rid of this in a sensible way.”

Plus, Rost said, accepting waste from oil companies gives municipal authorities a chance to make money. The McKeesport plant, whose average monthly revenue is $367,000, received $35,000, or 10 percent, from drilling operations in September.

The Mon Valley Sewage Authority plant stopped accepting drilling wastewater as of last week, and the Brownsville plant has limited well waste to one truck.

Among the most impacted is the Charleroi facility, where general manager Ed Golanka estimated that oil and gas drilling water accounts for 12 percent of his workload. In the summer, it was closer to 20 percent, he said.

“It has now brought us down to zero,” he said, referring to the plant’s inability to accept drilling water. “This has been a relatively new industry,” Golanka said. “The rules are still being made.”

Wait-and-see approach

A new wave of drilling unease is settling in Pennsylvania, as the state’s Marcellus Shale formation holds the promise of large reserves of natural gas. To tap into this resource efficiently, energy companies are using new technology to slide horizontal drills along the shale, multiplying many times over the gas extracting potential of traditional vertical drills.

To do this, companies like Range Resources, one of the largest regional drillers, break the rock into pieces by blasting it with water and sand, a process called fracking. The sand remains, propping open the cracks to continue releasing gas. About 4 million gallons of water are used to drill a horizontal well, according to Range’s estimates.

“Our approach to this issue is we’re going to wait and see,” said Matt Pitzarella, director of public affairs for Range Resources. “What we feel confident in is that it won’t affect our operations.”

DEP press secretary Teresa Candori said Wednesday that the latest tests show a decline in TDS levels, which still remain above the standard.

“It’s hard to say how much of the decrease is because of the reduction in wastewater from drilling,” she said.

More studies are needed to determine what impact the Marcellus Shale will have on water quality and resources.

“The UFO has landed in western Pennsylvania when it comes to these Marcellus Shale wells,” said Mike Hillebrand, vice president of Huntley & Huntley Inc., a Monroeville consulting firm for the oil and gas industry. “We all need to get to the hard-core facts in understanding what this is rather than even my side knee-jerking to push that we’re completely innocent on this.”

Hillebrand, whose company has shallow wells in the region, has been involved with a shale formation in Oklahoma and predicts that Pennsylvania will follow the pattern of skepticism he saw in the West.

Water contamination concerns are the first phase, he said, followed by alarm at seeing 150-foot-tall drilling rigs popping up all over the region. Then will come fears of exploding gas pipes. In five years, Hillebrand predicts Pennsylvanians will be as unfazed by large rigs as are the citizens of Fort Worth, Texas, where a giant crane now rivals the city’s skyline.

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