22 November 2008
By Don Hopey
The gas well drilling industry and a Greene County sewer authority are asking the state to lift limits on discharges of gas well waste water into the river even though the Monongahela River continues to carry unusually high levels of dissolved solids.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has blamed discharges of waste water from the booming gas well drilling industry, along with abandoned mine drainage and low river flow, for the high levels of total dissolved solids, or TDS. The high levels have resulted in reports of bad-tasting drinking water, malfunctioning dishwashers and spotted glassware in Greene, Washington and southern Allegheny counties.
The DEP issued a precautionary drinking water advisory last month, after noting the unusually high dissolved solids concentrations in a 70-mile stretch of the river from the West Virginia-Pennsylvania state line to McKeesport.
Also last month, on Oct. 23, the DEP ordered the Franklin Township Sewer Authority and eight other sewer authorities that were accepting the waste water to limit that part of their discharges into the river to 1 percent of their total daily discharge.
For the Franklin Township Sewer Authority, that meant reducing its discharge of gas well waste water to about 10,000 gallons per day, down from about 100,000 gallons per day.
The authority is trying to negotiate a consent order with DEP that would allow it to accept and discharge 50,000 gallons a days of well waste water.
"We're not happy about this," said George Scott, manager of the Franklin authority, which has also appealed the order. "The DEP is saying our discharges don't meet the standards but we never had to test for total dissolved solids before."
Mr. Scott said the Franklin Sewer Authority has a contract with Tri-County Wastewater Management Inc. to discharge well waste water that company collects and pipes to the Franklin sewage plant. The Franklin Sewer Authority had been paid about $200,000 by Tri-County to handle its wastewater. But the DEP restrictions will greatly reduce how much water it can discharge and reduce the money it receives from Tri-County.
And that, in turn, is putting a financial squeeze on Tri-County. Ray Kohler, Tri-Couny's plant manager, said the DEP discharge limit is needlessly restricting his business and could cause it to close. He said he's only been piping between 8,000 and 10,000 gallons a day to the Franklin Township sewage plant since the Oct. 23 DEP order.
But Helen Humphreys, a DEP spokeswoman, said it will take time to reduce the dissolved solids levels in the Monongahela because of the river's low seasonal flow and its slow-moving pools created by a series of navigational locks and dams.
"The locks and dams create pools that trap water, so the TDS are not easily displaced. Plus we've had very little precipitation to increase the flow," Ms. Humphreys said. She said that the DEP believes that mine drainage produces about 40 percent of the solids and gas well waste water comprises 30 percent.
Carl Carlson, president of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of Pennsylvania, said the state is overestimating the impact of the waste water from Marcellus shale gas drilling operations.
He said the industry has hired a consulting firm to review DEP water test results and look at all the river pollutants coming from sewage plants, abandoned mine drainage and agricultural runoff.
"It's not done, but I've seen enough to know we are responsible for far less than 30 percent," said Mr. Carlson, who is also director of community and government affairs for Fort Worth, Texas-based Range Resources Corp.
He said the report won't be done for a month but the industry is pushing ahead with efforts to inform local and state officials about the needs of the drilling industry. Its representatives testified before the Legislature in Harrisburg earlier this week.
The total dissolved solids levels continue to be measured at nearly double the 500 milligram per liter limit established by state and federal environmental agencies to ensure that drinking water doesn't taste or smell bad. Public drinking water suppliers are not equipped to, or required to, remove the solids from water supplies.
At eight of the nine sewer authorities accepting the well water, the only "treatment" was dilution with their normal water discharges. The drilling waste water Tri-County sends to the Franklin sewer authority is treated to remove some metals and suspended solids, but not total dissolved solids, which can measure at 28,000 milligrams per liter before being diluted with treated sewage waste water and discharged into the river.
Mr. Carlson said water disposal is the biggest issue facing companies drilling in Marcellus shale. Some of the gas wells are 5,000 to 8,000 feet deep and require 3 million to 4 million gallons of water during production.
Mr. Carlson said regulatory delays could hurt development of the deep gas field that runs under a broad swath of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia and contains an estimated 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
High total dissolved solids levels are not considered dangerous to human health, but the department advised water customers having problems to use bottled water for drinking and cooking as a precaution. A little vinegar in the rinse cycle of the dishwasher can help reduce spotting.
Don Hopey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
First published on November 22, 2008 at 12:00 am