Federal lawsuit: Plant in Warren discharging drilling waste into Allegheny River

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Clean Water Action has filed a federal lawsuit against Waste Treatment Corp., alleging the commercial water treatment facility in Warren is illegally discharging gas drilling wastewater containing high levels of salts, heavy metals and radioactive compounds into the Allegheny River.

The statewide environmental organization, which filed the lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in Erie, said the company has violated its discharge permit limits more than 400 times since 2010.

Despite those violations, and the ongoing 200,000-gallon-a-day discharge of drilling wastewater containing 125,000 pounds of salt, the state Department of Environmental Protection has not taken any effective action to stop the pollution, said Myron Arnowitt, Clean Water Action state director.

"You hear all the time that gas drilling wastewater doesn't end up in our rivers anymore. However, this is one case in which it clearly is," Mr. Arnowitt said.

A 2012 DEP study, cited in the lawsuit filing, found levels of chloride, bromide, lithium, strontium, radium-226 and radium-228 downriver from the plant that were more than 100 times higher than those found upriver from the plant.

The Allegheny River is the drinking water source for several public water suppliers, including the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which has 400,000 customers.

The Waste Treatment Corp. treatment plant was one of 16 water treatment plants that were asked by then DEP Secretary Michael Krancer and Gov. Tom Corbett in April 2011 to "voluntarily" stop disposing of drilling wastewater. The DEP had said that all complied, including the eight of those discharging upriver from Pittsburgh's drinking water intake pipe in Aspinwall.

Gary Clark, a spokesman in DEP's Northwest Regional office, declined to comment Monday for legal reasons. Waste Treatment Corp. could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Arnowitt said his organization filed the 19-page complaint under the "citizen suit" provisions of the federal Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, after giving the company and the DEP the required 60-day "notice of intent to sue" in July.

The DEP filed a legal action -- a Praecipe of Writ of Summons -- in Commonwealth Court on the 60th day after CWA filed its 60-day notice, but it contains no details about charges being pursued by the state.

Mr. Arnowitt, and Steve Hvozdovich, CWA's Marcellus Campaign coordinator, said the DEP filing was an attempt to delay action while discussions with the company continue.

"One of the reasons we decided to proceed with our suit is because DEP seems more concerned with negotiating a deal with the company than protecting the public," Mr. Hvozdovich said. "It's important that WTC stop accepting natural gas drilling wastewater while the legal process unfolds and that any resolution to the situation ensures the protection of the Allegheny River."

Waste Treatment is operating under a 2003 permit that did not authorize the discharge of oil and gas wastewater, although the company did inform the DEP it was doing so, including wastewater from Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations.

That permit was administratively extended twice by the department, each for five years.

The last extension is scheduled to expire this year.


Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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