WASHINGTON -- Several wastewater treatment plants in Western Pennsylvania have stopped taking in waste from natural gas hydraulic fracturing amid controversy about potential waterway contamination.
Testifying before a Senate committee examining natural gas extraction, Environmental Protection Agency deputy administrator Robert Perciasepe was asked about a recent flap over stream contamination related to wastewater treatment plants. A New York Times report about radiation found in Pennsylvania streams near plants that treat fracking "flowback" water prompted additional testing and information gathering from EPA and state officials.
Mr. Perciasepe also revealed that, "In many cases, those plants have stopped taking some of those fracking fluids."
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Katy Gresh said seven treatment plants, including six in southwestern Pennsylvania, have ceased processing fracking waste. She couldn't say for sure their reasons for doing so.
Mr. Perciasepe testified that some wastewater plants are ill-suited to treat the fluid, which is mostly water but also includes a cocktail of chemicals that would be dangerous in drinking water. The state has demanded additional and frequent testing for harmful contaminates at facilities that treat fracking fluids and public water suppliers downstream from them, though its tests last fall showed no abnormal radioactivity.
Mr. Perciasepe testified that possible solutions for treatment plants would be to put new constraints on plants that treat fracking waste, or to pre-treat the wastewater before it arrives.
Jeff Cloud, the vice chairman of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, testified that in his state, fracking waste is barred from being processed at treatment plants. This prompted Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who chaired the hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, to wonder why this isn't the case in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
The answer is partially due to geology.
In Oklahoma and other states, leftover fluid can be re-injected into abandoned wells. This is not possible in Pennsylvania because the geology doesn't permit deep well injections.
Conrad "Dan" Volz, of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health, testified that the waste could go to sites in Ohio, but it's more convenient for Pennsylvania companies to dispose flowback water in nearby treatment plants. And, he said, it was an "oversight" by DEP to allow it.
A critic of DEP and of environmental impacts of the Marcellus Shale drilling boom, Dr. Volz recently announced he is leaving Pitt because the administration was trying to muzzle his views.
"I was told not to talk about a lot of Marcellus Shale issues that are very politically sensitive, and I wasn't willing to do that," he said in an interview after the hearing, adding that he might return to consulting.
Dr. Volz testified about his study finding that a creek in Indiana County, located near a treatment facility that took on flowback water, had a slew of contaminates. An industry group discounted the study as isolated and limited to an area with no impact on drinking water or other human activities.
Much of the hearing focused on the debate over whether federal or state authorities should be the primary regulators of fracking. The process is exempt from federal oversight except when diesel fuel is used in fracking or when the EPA sees an imminent danger.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., testified before the committee on the merits of his bill that would give EPA oversight over the practice. Instead of regulations of varying strength across different states, Mr. Casey said, "I'm in favor of a national standard."
Support for and criticism of his FRAC Act broke on predictable partisan lines, with Democrats backing Mr. Casey and Republicans opposed.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a leading EPA critic, lauded the economic benefits of increased natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania and other states.
"A virtual boom in natural gas development is transforming America's energy security -- due in no small measure to the absence of federal regulation," he said.
Daniel Malloy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.