At the direction of Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, acting Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Mike Krancer on Tuesday called on all drilling operators to stop delivering wastewater from Marcellus Shale gas extraction by May 19 to 15 facilities currently accepting it, citing newly revised total dissolved solids (TDS) regulations.
"Now is the time to take action to end this practice," Krancer said, adding that the state at one point had 27 grandfathered facilities accepting wastewater, "but over the last year many have voluntarily decided to stop taking [it] and we are now down to only 15. More than half of those facilities are now up for permit renewal."
The DEP revised its TDS regulations in 2010, requiring publicly owned and centralized waste treatment facilities to treat new or increased discharges of TDS to more stringent standards. The process of removing TDS from wastewater also removes nontoxic bromides, but these become pollutants called trihalomethanes (THM) when combined with chlorine, which is used at water treatment facilities to disinfect drinking water.
According to the DEP, elevated levels of bromide have been found in water samples taken from rivers in western Pennsylvania.
"While there are several possible sources for bromide other than shale drilling wastewater, we believe that if operators would stop giving wastewater to facilities that continue to accept it under the special provision, bromide concentrations would quickly and significantly decrease," Krancer said.
Krancer added that under the previous administration of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, wastewater facilities that had historically been accepting drilling wastewater could continue the practice, so long as they did not increase their input load of wastewater.
"Conditions have changed," Krancer said. "We now have more definitive scientific data, improved technology and increased voluntary wastewater recycling by industry."
Brady Russell, spokesman for the environmental group Clean Water Action, told NGI's Shale Daily that the state was not forcing the operators to stop delivering wastewater to the facilities.
"There's nothing stopping any driller from continuing to dispose of wastewater as they have," Russell said Tuesday. "There's nothing stopping a wastewater treatment site from taking it. Nothing has actually changed, it's just a statement of opinion from Secretary Krancer. If they were really serious about [a ban], they would have directed the wastewater treatment plants to quit taking it, not to direct the drillers to quit bringing it."
Russell added that Clean Water Action believes Pennsylvania is violating the federal Clean Water Act by allowing the DEP to issue consent orders with wastewater treatment plants. The organization is one of two water advocacy groups that in March announced plans to sue two Pittsburgh-area treatment plants for allegedly discharging oil and gas wastewater into the Monongahela River watershed without proper permits (see Shale Daily, March 14).
"No wastewater facility that's accepting Marcellus wastewater in Pennsylvania has a permit to do so," Russell said. "They just have these legally meaningless consent orders with DEP. Rendell did not handle this correctly, though, and anything that keeps frack water out of streams is good."
The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) said Tuesday it supported the DEP's actions and was working to reduce the amount of wastewater taken to facilities for treatment. The coalition added that operators were recycling "significant and growing amounts of water," and said the figures were increasing with advances in technology.
"Research by Carnegie Mellon University and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority experts suggests that the natural gas industry is a contributing factor to elevated levels of bromide in the Allegheny and Beaver Rivers," MSC President Kathryn Klaber said. "Our industry will continue to implement state-of-the-art environmental protection across our operations and operate in a transparent and responsible manner."
Former Gov. Tom Ridge (R), a strategic advisor for the MSC, added that the coalition "supports DEP's efforts, and will continue to work aggressively and collaboratively to craft solutions aimed to protecting our waterways and our environment."