After two years of debating whether to allow oil and natural gas drillers to move wastewater produced by their hydraulically fractured wells on barges, proponents and opponents remain sharply divided over how much of a threat that would pose to the environment, the nation's water supply and workers.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a leading industry group, says the U.S. Coast Guard's proposal for regulating movement of the wastewater would not pose a threat at all -- because the requirements are so stringent that it would not be economical to move the waste on barges.
Opponents to the plan contend the Coast Guard's proposal does not go far enough. They say the agency barely scratched the surface in evaluating the health, environmental and safety risks of moving the material on the nation's waterways.
There isn't even an agreement on what to call the waste. The Coast Guard calls it shale gas extraction wastewater. Drillers call it brine or produced water, while many opponents refer to it as frack water.
The Coast Guard, which regulates the movement of goods by barge, has received hundreds of comments on the proposal published Oct. 30. The agency extended the public comment period from Nov. 29 to Dec. 6 and is now reviewing the comments that poured in.
Hydraulic fracturing -- injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into wells at high pressure in order to release oil and gas deposits -- has done more than revive talk about American energy independence. It's created a huge downstream industry set up to deal with the millions of gallons of water that flow back out of the well after fracking is completed. Pennsylvania drillers produced 29 million gallons of wastewater in 2012, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Wastewater can either be reused, treated or stored underground by injecting it into wells.
Drillers currently move it by truck and rail. Proponents of moving it on the river say barge operators have a better safety and environmental record than truck or rail operators.
"This should be an improvement from an environmental point of view," said Peter Stephaich, chairman of Campbell Transportation, a Houston, Pa., company that operates a fleet of about 500 barges.
Mr. Stephaich said his company is already insured to move hazardous liquids and does not expect its insurance premiums will rise if Campbell moves the energy industry's wastewater.
Under the Coast Guard's proposal, the agency would issue permits for shipping the water by barge.
Each load would be required to be chemically analyzed based on standards approved by the Coast Guard. Barge operators would also be required to ensure that the covered, double-hulled barges are properly vented to prevent workers from being exposed to harmful levels of radon gas, which causes lung cancer.
Each barge could carry anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 42-gallon barrels of the wastewater. Barge operators in the Pittsburgh region would be limited to 10,000-barrel barges because of the size of locks in the region.
Proponents of the measure say materials already safely moving by barge under the Coast Guard's supervision are more hazardous than wastewater from fracked wells. Those include gasoline, fuel oil, fertilizers and other chemicals.
"We're really not looking at this as a unique situation," said Jennifer Carpenter of the American Waterways Operators, a barge industry group. "There are solid measures, precautions, protections in place."
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, based in Robinson, said the Coast Guard does not need a special policy for the waste because it already has one that has covered oil field wastes since 1987. The new standards being proposed "are too restrictive and would effectively preclude the barging of typical shale gas produced water," coalition president David Spigelmyer wrote in a Dec. 6 letter to the agency.
Opponents, meanwhile, want a more complete study of the potential impact, including threats to customers of water companies that rely on river water.
"This very dangerous activity that they're proposing needs to have intense scrutiny," said Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a river watchdog group. Ms. Carluccio said it also would be an "unfounded leap of faith" to think the proposed policy would protect workers from harmful levels of radon.
GreenHunter Resources, a Grapevine, Texas, company whose services including disposing of wastewater, would like to move waste on rivers. The company purchased an 11-acre waterfront site in Wheeling, W.Va., this year that it intends to use as a barge terminal and wastewater treatment plant.
But Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University, believes barging wastewater to the GreenHunter plant would pose a threat to Ohio River communities that rely on the river for their water supply. Any wastewater leaking from the barges would mix instantly with river water, making it impossible to separate as can be done when oil is spilled, he said.
"This thing cries out for a risk assessment," Mr. Stout said.
Joe Dinkel, executive director of operations for the West View Water Authority, acknowledged that a spill of wastewater would be difficult to contain. The West View company relies on Ohio River water to serve more than 200,000 residents of the North Hills and Ohio River communities.
Mr. Dinkel said he has mixed emotions about the Coast Guard proposal but would go along with it because of the barge industry's track record of moving gasoline, diesel fuel and other "vastly more dangerous materials" than wastewater.
In the case of a spill, he said water intake valves on the river would be closed until the contaminated liquid passes, which could be a matter of hours or days depending on how much was spilled and how fast the river was flowing at the time.
Although the Coast Guard received hundreds of comments, some thought it didn't allow enough time for input.
A spokesman for the American Water Works Association, which represents water utilities, said the industry group did not have time to examine whether wastewater is more of a threat to water supplies than other hazardous materials currently moving on the river.
In a letter to the Coast Guard, the industry group said information about the contents of the wastewater should be readily available to those who would have to clean up a spill. It also said water companies downstream from a spill should be quickly informed about what's in the water -- including proprietary information drillers are reluctant to disclose -- and how much was released.
A Coast Guard spokesman said the agency will review the comments it received and address any concerns. He could not say how long the review will take or what the agency's next step could be.
Len Boselovic: email@example.com or 412-263-1941.