HARRISBURG -- Natural gas producers in the state are facing tougher regulations on the disposal of wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations, now that a state regulatory panel has voted to enact the new measures.
After three hours of deliberations Thursday, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission voted 4-1 to approve the regulations, which are intended to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals that natural gas producers release into Pennsylvania waterways.
The state's burgeoning natural gas industry has begun drilling deep underground in the widespread areas of Marcellus Shale present in Pennsylvania. Drillers use chemicals like arsenic, aluminum and cadmium mixed into pressurized water, which is shot more than a mile underground to fracture rock formations. The process is known as "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking."
The new regulations aim to limit the chemicals, called "total dissolved solids," to no more than 500 milligrams per liter when they are released into waterways.
John Hanger, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, told regulatory panel members that maintaining low levels of solids is important because many water treatment plants can't remove them from the water.
"The levels in the streams that reach the plants are going to flow right on through to the (water) glasses in our homes and businesses," Mr. Hanger said.
Mr. Hanger said treating the water will cost natural gas companies between 12 and 25 cents per gallon.
Opponents of the regulations say they will discourage energy companies from moving into Pennsylvania.
"Unfortunately, these rules will make responsible shale gas development more difficult, and the jobs and economic benefits created throughout this process less likely, without positively impacting Pennsylvania's water quality," said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group.
Tony Gaudlip, of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the $800 million cost of the regulations could have instead been spent on 10,000 jobs.
The Environmental Resources and Energy Committees of the House and Senate will have 14 days to review the new regulations. If either committee disagrees with the IRRC action, it could forward a negative resolution for the full Senate or House to vote on. Barring such an action, the regulations will become law after they are reviewed by the attorney general's office.
Ms. Klaber said natural gas producers have always made the protection of the state's rivers, lakes and streams one of their top priorities.
"Our industry is working aggressively and constantly to improve our water management practices," she said.
She said coalition members are now recycling nearly 60 percent of the water from this process. Many are recycling almost 100 percent of their water, thanks to new technology.
Other critics, including Barbara McNees of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, took issue with the clarity of the language in the rules. Critics said it was not clear that existing industries dispersing dissolved solids into waterways would be exempted from the regulations.
Mr. Hanger said that if companies did not want to purify their water, they also have the option of re-using it at other drilling sites or storing it in caverns thousands of feet below the ground.
Gov. Ed Rendell praised the panel's decision in a statement calling the vote "a great step forward in our efforts to protect one of the state's greatest natural and economic assets -- our waterways."
One panel member is named by the governor; the other four are appointed by the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. The lone vote against the regulations was by Silvan Lutkewitte, who was appointed by House Republicans.
Evan Trowbridge is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.