DEP Asks Drillers to Stop Disposing Wastewater at Plants

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
20 April 2011
By Don Hopey and Sean D. Hamill

Because Marcellus Shale gas drilling wastewater discharges are significant contributors to high concentrations of bromides and other dissolved solids in rivers and streams used for public drinking water sources, the state has asked drilling operators to voluntarily stop disposing wastewater at 16 municipal sewage and commercial treatment plants.

The Department of Environmental Protection request -- which is not a departmental "order" that carries legal weight -- would have drillers halt a wastewater disposal practice that had been criticized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups but that the DEP has allowed at select facilities despite stricter water discharge standards passed in December. The primary treatment those facilities provide is dilution.

The DEP request, approved by Gov. Tom Corbett, gives drillers until May 19 to stop taking Marcellus Shale drilling wastewater to the treatment facilities.

"We believe we can achieve voluntary compliance," said Katy Gresh, a DEP spokeswoman. "At 30 days we will revisit this and see how many comply. We could then use our authority to take the next step with the treatment facilities or drilling industry or both."

Those facilities include the 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.

As the DEP made its request Tuesday morning, the Marcellus Shale Coalition said for the first time that drilling wastewater discharges into rivers and streams were partly responsible for higher levels of certain pollutants, including bromides, that have been measured by researchers in Western Pennsylvania's waterways.

"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," said Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of the coalition of Marcellus Shale drilling industry companies. "We are committed to leading efforts, and working alongside DEP and other stakeholders, to address these issues quickly and straightforwardly, and support the appropriate action taken by DEP today."

She said the coalition, which represents almost all of the companies drilling Marcellus Shale deep gas wells in the state, recognizes that the DEP request is not a legally enforceable order, but is taking it seriously.

"This is the time to step up," Ms. Klaber 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."

The drilling and hydraulic fracturing wastewater from Marcellus wells contains high concentrations of dissolved solids, including bromides, a non-toxic salt compound that reacts with disinfectants used by municipal treatment plants to create brominated trihalomethanes, also known as THMs.

Studies show a link between ingestion of and exposure to THMs and several types of cancer and birth defects. Because of high THM levels, several public drinking water suppliers have had to issue advisories to customers and change treatment methods to reduce the THM levels in finished water.

Water quality studies on the Allegheny River, where the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority draws water for its 400,000 customers, and on the Monongahela River, have found the Marcellus Shale wastewater discharges are big contributors to the problem. Jeanne VanBriesen, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of civil and environmental engineering, who conducted the studies on the Mon, said bromide levels spiked in July and have remained high.

"On the Mon, which has more sources, including power plants and industry, it's more difficult to tell, but on the Allegheny it's clear that the discharges from treatment plants are significant contributors," Ms. VanBriesen said. "I do expect, with the removal of the waste stream, we will see bromide levels come down."

DEP Secretary Michael Krancer said his agency made its request based on the more definitive scientific data and with the knowledge that drilling companies are able to recycle more of their wastewater.

The number of municipal and commercial facilities that were allowed to take drilling wastewater under a "grandfathered" accommodation has dropped since last year from 27 to 16, the DEP said, because some drilling operators recycled increased amounts of water and some treatment facilities voluntarily decided to stop accepting it.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires all treatment facilities to get a permit before they can discharge wastewater into rivers and streams. In theory, the permits limit how dirty the effluent can be when discharged into a river and ensure that the water quality doesn't degrade.

But Pennsylvania, which administers the EPA permit program within its borders, initially lacked a clear regulatory scheme to deal with the big increases in volume created by the gas boom and wasn't initially aware that some facilities had begun handling the waste.

Since then, the state has enacted tougher water quality standards. The new rules, adopted last year, allow existing treatment plants to continue operating with few changes, but will require new facilities to meet strict targets for dissolved solids and chlorides.

The DEP said recent surface water sampling found elevated levels of bromide in Western Pennsylvania's rivers.

"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," Mr. Krancer said in a DEP release.

Ms. Gresh said there are four other wastewater treatment plants operating in the state that will be able to continue to accept drilling wastewater because they use technologies that can treat the dissolved solids and salts. Two more are under construction.

Matt Pitzarella, a Range Resources spokesman, said the drilling company supports the DEP request, even though its operations are not affected because it recycles nearly all of its wastewater or has other disposal and treatment options.

"One of the criticisms of the Marcellus industry is that we aren't thinking long-term," he said. "This change shows our concern. We have said we believe these issues are manageable and we were going to rely on science to solve them."

Chief Oil & Gas Inc. said it has expanded its water recycling program and no longer takes any wastewater to any of the grandfathered treatment facilities.

Chevron Appalachian, another big driller in Pennsylvania, said it will abide by the DEP request and will accelerate implementation of a water management program to eliminate use of treatment facilities. The company said it is already recycling 100 percent of its flowback water -- the wastewater that returns to the surface with the gas after a well is hydraulically fractured.

Environmental groups, including PennEnvironment, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future and Clean Water Action, were supportive of the DEP's request that the industry stop using municipal treatment plants, but are worried it doesn't go far enough.

Erika Staaf, PennEnvironment's clean water advocate, said the group has been concerned for years about municipal facilities discharging drilling wastewater they were not equipped to treat, and is happy the DEP is taking steps to protect rivers, streams and public drinking water sources.

"Amidst growing concern by the public and increased scrutiny by the media, we are happy to see DEP finally take these critical steps to once and for all stop dangerous, undertreated Marcellus Shale wastewater from entering our waterways and drinking water supplies," Ms. Staaf said.

Myron Arnowitt, state director of Clean Water Action, questioned whether treatment facilities and drilling companies will voluntarily comply.

"It's great DEP finally recognizes it's a real problem," Mr. Arnowitt said. "But on the flip side, the state needs to take some action and not just make voluntary requests."

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983. Sean D. Hamill: or 412-263-2579. Associated Press contributed.