Because of high levels of dissolved solids and bromide in rivers and streams used for public drinking water sources, the state Department of Environmental Protection has asked all Marcellus Shale operations to voluntarily stop disposal of drilling wastewater at 15 municipal sewage treatment plants.
The request -- specifically not a departmental "order" that carries legal weight -- asks drillers to halt a wastewater disposal practice that had been criticized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups but that the DEP had allowed at the select facilities despite tighter water discharge standards passed in December.
The DEP requested, with Gov. Tom Corbett's approval, that drillers stop taking Marcellus Shale drilling wastewater to municipal "grandfathered" treatment facilities after May 19.
Those facilities are, the Clairton City Municipal Authority and McKeesport City Municipal Authority, both in Allegheny County; Johnstown Redevelopment Authority, Cambria County; Ridgway Borough, Elk County; Franklin Township Sewage Authority, Greene County; Tunnelton Liquids Co. and Hart Resource Technologies Inc., both 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.
"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."
At about the same time 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 that have been measured in public waterways in Western Pennsylvania.
"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."
The drilling wastewater 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.
"While the prior administration allowed certain facilities to continue to take this wastewater, conditions have changed since the implementation of the TDS regulations," DEP Secretary Michael Krancer said today. "We now have more definitive scientific data, improved technology and increased voluntary wastewater recycling by industry."
The number of municipal facilities that were allowed to take drilling wastewater has dropped from 27 to 15 over the last year, the DEP said, as some drilling operations recycled increasing amounts of water and some treatment facilities voluntarily decided to stop accepting it.
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.
Matt Pitzarella, a Range Resources spokesman, said the drilling company supports DEP's request, even though its operations are not affected because it recycles much of its wastewater or has other disposal and treatment and disposal 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."
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.
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. under-treated Marcellus Shale gas drilling wastewater into our rivers and streams that serve as many Pennsylvanians' water supply. In fact, we testified on this subject just last year. While the 2010 'Chapter 95' wastewater standards were a positive step forward toward protecting our rivers, streams and drinking water sources from Marcellus Shale gas drilling contamination, they still allowed some grandfathered treatment plants to accept this wastewater.
"Amidst growing concern by the public and increased scrutiny by the media, we are 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. Staff said. "In most cases, treatment plants in Pennsylvania were using 'dilution as the solution' ??? simply diluting the wastewater before discharging it back into our rivers and streams ??? rather than actually treating it. In fact, it was in part due to inadequately-treated Marcellus Shale wastewater discharged into the Monongahela River that state environmental officials were forced to issue a drinking water advisory for roughly 325,000 local residents near Pittsburgh in 2008."
But Myron Arnowitt, state director of Clean Water Action, questioned whether treatment facilities and drilling companies will voluntarily comply.
"It's great DEP recognizes its 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: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.