Risky cargo: The Coast Guard has a key decision on wastewater

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The question of whether the shale gas industry should be able to ship its wastewater on the nation's rivers and lakes is so controversial that officials might have been tempted not to touch it with a barge pole.

Fortunately, the U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates the country's waterways, went the other direction and spent the last year evaluating the pros and cons of moving huge quantities of the byproduct by water. For the public, that's good news since safety is paramount and the issue is complicated.

Environmentalists are worried that an accident involving a barge loaded with 10,000 barrels of wastewater could be catastrophic, contaminating the drinking water supply of millions of people. But industry and transportation officials counter that other industrial materials, some toxic, already are carried on barges and wastewater is no more threatening than those substances.

This is not a question that lends itself to political debate, but rather technical analysis by those who know the rivers best and whether conventional barges can keep such cargo secure.

In an article published Sunday in the Post-Gazette and written by Emily DeMarco of the nonprofit investigative group PublicSource, the chief of the Coast Guard's Hazardous Materials Division said the Marine Safety Unit Pittsburgh first raised questions about what is permissible when Marcellus Shale drillers made inquiries.

As the shale drilling industry has grown, so have questions about how to dispose of its huge volume of wastewater. Some is reused, some is treated and some is injected into underground disposal sites. Much of it is transported by trucks, but using barges would be less expensive.

The Coast Guard's proposal, to be issued in the Federal Register, could come in a few weeks. Then public comment will be taken on this important decision with implications for nearly 12,000 miles of waterways.

"Proceed with caution" must be the watchword, and with the Coast Guard's appraisal the public will have a better chance of doing that.

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