Coast Guard Plan Would Let 'Frackwater' Travel Waterways on
31 October 2013
By Timothy Puko
The Coast Guard is proposing to let shale drillers ship their
wastewater on river barges, a move that could lower disposal costs
for energy companies but fuel opposition from environmentalists
and others concerned about the risks of transporting potentially
toxic waste on waterways that provide drinking water.
The Coast Guard did not cite environmental risks in its policy
proposal but focused on the threat to barge workers. It may allow
barge transport if companies analyze the chemicals in each
shipment, keep radioactive particles below set levels and limit
workers' exposure to gas venting from the tanks, according to a
policy proposal published Wednesday.
The decision occurs after more than a year of study by the Coast
Guard, which oversees the nation's waterways. Opposition is
starting to build.
All three responses posted online during the first day of open
comment called it a bad idea. Drinking water intakes could be
exposed to harmful risks, two residents of Ohio said.
Wastewater is a big business in modern shale drilling. Millions of
gallons of water go into wells to crack underground rocks —
hydraulic fracturing — and release gas, and companies spend
millions of dollars to recycle that water for new wells or to ship
it, often several hundred miles away, for safe injection
Drillers today rely on tanker trucks to transport drilling waste,
which could include toxic chemicals and other radioactive
material, to recycling centers or to disposal sites outside of
Pennsylvania. Many of those sites are in Ohio, where the so-called
“frackwater” is injected into underground wells.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a drilling industry group, plans to
monitor the process, spokesman Patrick Creighton said. “We've got
every confidence that the Coast Guard, whatever comes of this
process, will make the right decision and make sure that the
public safety, health and welfare is kept in mind,” he added.
Proponents of river shipment say it would allow drilling companies
to save money by shipping in bulk and help the environment by
getting tanker trucks that ship the water off the road, cutting
down on noise and carbon pollution that have outraged residents in
Environmental service companies have been building up transit hubs
to take waste to Ohio — which has the most disposal sites in the
region — and tanker and boat companies are all looking for a slice
of that work.
“Yeah, we're excited, absolutely,” said Peter Stephaich, chairman
of Washington County-based Campbell Transportation. He's been in
contact with several companies about pushing their tank barges up
and down the rivers. “There's some pent-up demand. People have
been waiting for this, and it will probably start pretty quickly,
but it's going to take a while for the people who own this water
from moving this by truck to moving this by barge.”
The Coast Guard had been working on a risk assessment for several
years, and the commander in charge of it told the Tribune-Review
in December he was pushing for a quick decision. The water was
being transported by rail and road, he noted.
If river shipments are allowed, it could be a blow to truckers.
But Pam Melott, operations manager at Indiana-based WTC Gas Field
Services Inc., which handles some drilling waste, said public
opposition will be hard for river shippers to overcome.
“That's not going fly. It won't last,” she said. “It's more
dangerous because of how close it is to the water.”
Supporters disagree, noting that many chemicals, including jet
fuel and gasoline, are transported in bulk on the nation's rivers.
The proposal, which is open for public comment until Nov. 29,
focused on keeping barge workers safe from radioactive particles
that come up in the wastewater from gas wells in the Marcellus and
other shales. The Coast Guard is obligated to review every comment
before finalizing its decision.
“The Coast Guard is concerned that, over time, sediment and
deposits with radioisotopes may accumulate on the inside of the
barge tank surface and may pose a health risk to personnel
entering the tank,” according to the proposal. “The Coast Guard's
concern with respect to radioisotopes is to ensure that radiation
exposure duration and levels are both kept as low as reasonably
achievable, within the meaning of Nuclear Regulatory Commission
regulations ... .”
Many hazardous chemicals like jet fuel and gasoline are shipped on
the rivers each day. But while the Coast Guard focused on the risk
to boat workers, environmentalists worried about the risk of river
spills. The Coast Guard did not discuss the risk of spills in its
proposal. Stephaich called that an “emotional” issue that's not
“It's kind of like saying that because we have a poorly
constructed system for carrying hazardous chemicals on the river,
we should have a poorly constructed system for carrying all
chemicals on the river,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania
director at Clean Water Action. “We'd like to see improvements in
that system across the board.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be
reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.