EPA to control fracking fluids disposal
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HARRISBURG -- Federal environmental officials announced Thursday that they plan to develop new rules over the next three years for disposing of natural gas drilling wastewater.
Those rules will create national standards for handling the briny wastewater produced from drilling underground coal and shale formations.
Pennsylvania officials say they expect the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines to dovetail with a state request issued in April that gas drillers stop hauling wastewater to unequipped municipal treatment facilities.
But state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer also questioned whether the EPA rules are necessary, noting that several of the federally overseen facilities also voluntarily stopped accepting wastewater after the DEP request.
"Because of what we did with regulations and our April call [to drillers], it virtually dried up," Mr. Krancer said in an interview.
Meanwhile, the regulatory announcement drew cheers from environmental advocates concerned about water safety. Industry officials expressed skepticism, saying they viewed the move as duplicative to current rules.
Officials at the EPA pointed to a July letter from Mr. Krancer as one reason for the agency to become more involved in what has traditionally been a state-regulated industry.
In that letter, the secretary wrote that there were several specialized pre-treatment facilities that the commonwealth lacked the authority to ask to stop accepting drilling wastewater. He urged the federal agency to update its rules concerning those treatment centers, noting that Pennsylvania's request to state-regulated treatment centers had resulted in near-universal compliance.
Drilling wastewater in Pennsylvania no longer is handled through any facilities that discharge water back into streams or rivers, according to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group. That water is either recycled and reused, or disposed in government-regulated injection wells both here and in Ohio.
But federal officials appear to have some questions about that process. An agency spokesman said "extensive data gathering" is planned, including visiting well sites, talking with industry and environmental groups, and compiling a national survey of the shale gas industry.
Coal bed methane standards are expected in 2013, and rules for shale gas wastewater in 2014.
The agency said the proposal reflects recommendations in the U.S. secretary of energy's advisory board report. Among that panel's August suggestions was that agencies "should review and modernize" rules regarding protection of ground and surface water.
They also have proposed updated air emissions rules, which would impact oil and gas wells that go through the hydraulic fracturing process.
That increasing federal involvement in drilling regulation has prompted some in Congress, including U.S. Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, to push back against what they say is a "one-size-fits-all" approach from Washington.
"Pennsylvania has a lot more people to enforce than the EPA does and a lot more understanding of the local topography," Mr. Murphy said. "The DEP is better equipped to do it."
Business groups such as the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association echoed that sentiment, noting the local expertise has grown in the commonwealth.
"This is yet another Washington solution in search of a problem, as treated Marcellus water in Pennsylvania is no longer discharged into surface waters," said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
Some environmental advocacy groups, however, believe additional oversight by the EPA is sorely needed.
"The nation is in the midst of a fracking-fueled gas rush, which is generating toxic wastewater faster than treatment plants can handle it," said attorney Deborah Goldberg, of the Washington, D.C.-based Earthjustice. "The EPA's proposal is a common-sense solution for this growing public health problem and will help keep poisons out of our rivers, streams, and drinking water."
Drilling companies in Pennsylvania are recycling fracking fluids, but eventually these fluids will have to be disposed of in injection wells or treated in plants designed to process fracking fluids, she said.
Clean Water Action filed a notice in May that it intended to sue the Franklin Township Municipal Authority in Greene County and McKeesport Municipal Authority to stop them from treating fracking fluids. The Franklin plant in turn stopped accepting well wastewater. In July, Clean Water Action filed suit against the McKeesport authority to force it to stop accepting drilling wastewater.
First Published October 21, 2011 12:00 am