The state Department of Environmental Protection pulled a "switcheroo" by approving a permit that allows the spreading of chemical salts from Marcellus Shale hydraulic fracturing wastewater on roadways and fields statewide, according to an environmental organization's appeal of that permit.
The appeal to the state Environmental Hearing Board by Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future alleges that the DEP violated fundamental due process rules requiring public notice and comment in granting the permit last month to Integrated Water Technologies Inc., and asks that it be revoked.
PennFuture claimed in its 11-page filing Monday that the required public notice for the permit described it narrowly as allowing the Little Falls, N.J.-firm to treat and process fracking wastewater from Marcellus Shale wells at a facility in North Fayette.
But the DEP, after meeting and corresponding with Integrated Water, issued a different "general permit" that says nothing about wastewater treatment. Instead, the issued permit changes the definition of two chemical compounds produced by the company's treatment process from waste to "beneficial use" and authorizes the spreading and use of the chemical salts for road and sidewalk de-icer, roadway dust suppression and soil stabilization. No public comment or input on those uses was sought by the state agency.
The drilling industry uses millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand to "frack," or crack, the Marcellus shale and release the natural gas it contains. Some of that water flows back to the surface with the gas and is either reused or treated to remove a variety of heavy metals and salts it has washed out of the shale.
The treatment byproducts -- crystallized sodium chloride and liquid calcium chloride -- could have "potentially widespread impacts on public health and the environment," according to the appeal, because the chemical salts are allowed by the permit to contain limited amounts of arsenic, lead, mercury, ammonia, volatile organic compounds and diesel hydrocarbons.
Because of what is described as "DEP's misleading public notice," PennFuture contends that the permit application generated no public comment.
"If you ask someone in Allegheny County or Bucks County or anywhere if someone can spread chemical salts created by treatment of Marcellus Shale fracking water, most would say 'No.' " said Kurt Weist, a senior attorney for PennFuture.
"It was a misleading public notice and subsequently a one-sided conversation. There was no public input and the process is set up to allow public comment on the formulation of a permit."
In addition to the procedural issue, the appeal said the reworking of the permit from wastewater processing to authorizing use of the chemical salts in publicly traveled places, like roads, sidewalks and fields, "fundamentally changed the nature and scope of the requested permit and its potential to affect public health and the environment."
In response to questions about the changes made to the permit, DEP issued a statement that called PennFuture's appeal "baseless" and "an attempt to manufacture a controversy."
"DEP issued a general permit to Integrated Water Technologies that allows for a clean salt to be created for commercial uses, including use as road salt for deicing roads in the winter," said the statement released by Kevin Sunday, a DEP spokesman.
The release also said that the Integrated Water treatment process "removes nearly every impurity from the wastewater," and works with another existing permit that "encourages and expands the reuse and recycling of wastewater."
"We are surprised," the DEP statement said, "that PennFuture would be attacking the basic environmentally sound practice of recycling of water used for hydraulic fracturing."
The general permit allows the "beneficial use" of the chemical salts as long as the radiological levels of uranium, thorium, more than a dozen metals and volatile organics does not exceed specific limits. The permit requires the company to regularly analyze the salt byproducts produced in its fracking wastewater treatment process.
It also allows the DEP to waive restrictions on use of the chemical salts on agricultural crops and livestock pastures.
John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, said such application of the salts on roads and fields raises serious environmental concerns.
"We need to know what the company is claiming it can remove from the fracking flowback wastewater," Mr. Stolz said. "The problem we've been seeing is that flowback chemical composition can vary widely depending on how long the fluids have been in the [well]. It becomes saltier the longer it's been underground and the quality of the water itself can be very different."
Greg Lee, a spokesman for Integrated Water, declined to comment on the permitting issue. He said the company is still lining up financing for the North Fayette facility. When it is built, it will be capable of processing between 500,000 and 1 million gallons of fracking wastewater a day.
No hearing date for the appeal has been set by the Environmental Hearing Board.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.