Pennsylvania's Environmental Quality Board (EQB) has approved new regulations that would significantly lower the amount of total dissolved solids (TDS) permitted in wastewater discharges from drilling operations in the state's prolific Marcellus shale area.

The "first-of-its-kind regulation" would restrict wastewater discharges from drilling operations to a more stringent 500 milligrams per liter (mg/l) standard, while other new and expanded facilities in general use would be allowed discharges up to a threshold of 2,000 mg/l, EQB said.

"The lower standard was set for the drilling industry because drilling wastewater is so heavily polluted and because drillers have options other than returning water to rivers and streams such as reusing and recycling it, or injecting it deep into caverns situated below ground water supplies when approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency." EQB said.

The new regulations would be "an appropriate and necessary measure" to ensure that drilling wastewater does not pollute drinking water, damage industrial equipment or endanger fish and other aquatic life, according to Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger.

"Without imposing limits on this pollution, treatment costs for this wastewater are passed along to downstream industries and municipal ratepayers," Hanger said. "All other industries in Pennsylvania are responsible for the waste they generate and the drilling industry should be no exception."

TDS levels in western Pennsylvania's Monongahela River have exceeded the 500 mg/l level several times over the past two years, according to EQB. The elevated TDS levels led to complaints from residential customers of foul-smelling water and reports from industrial water users of equipment damage caused by polluted river water, EQB said. High TDS levels also reportedly led to a toxic algae bloom that killed fish and aquatic life in a 30-mile section of Dunkard Creek in Greene County, PA, last year.

"We have already experienced problems from TDS pollution from gas drilling that contaminated drinking water," said Jan Jarrett, CEO of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future. "These rules should protect streams from massive fish kills as happened in Dunkard Creek and to ensure public drinking water supplies will be protected."

EQB also approved proposed rules that would strengthen Pennsylvania's well construction standards and define a drilling company's responsibility for responding to gas migration issues, requiring well operators to conduct quarterly inspections of all wells and report the results to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) (see Daily GPI, Feb. 1).

The regulations must still be reviewed by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office, approved by the Environmental Resources and Energy committees in the state House and Senate, and undergo a 30-day review period at the Independent Regulatory Review Commission.

Gas migration problems in the state's Marcellus Shale acreage can be avoided through proper well construction procedures, Hanger told natural gas and oil company representatives gathered for a meeting in Harrisburg, PA, last week. Representatives of the Marcellus Shale Coalition said at the meeting that most shale gas producers in the state already comply with the proposed regulations and treat or recycle all of their flow back water, according to local news reports.

The DEP scheduled the meeting with companies that hold permits to drill in the Marcellus following its decision to suspend a review of Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.'s pending drilling applications statewide and bar the producer from drilling new natural gas wells in the Dimock Township area of Susquehanna County because of contaminated groundwater (see Daily GPI, April 19). The suspension is in place until the Houston-based producer fulfills its obligations under a sweeping consent order and agreement (CO&A) issued by DEP following the producer's failure to abide by the terms of a November 2009 CO&A, said Hanger (see Daily GPI, Nov. 6, 2009).

"As we have seen in Dimock, stray gas migrating from improperly constructed wells can build up to explosive levels near and inside homes and can make residential water supplies unusable," Hanger said. "The drilling industry is ultimately responsible for ensuring their wells are properly constructed and must use the best casing and cementing practices to prevent problems. We will hold drillers in Pennsylvania accountable for problems caused by drilling...the Marcellus gas industry in Pennsylvania can and must be the very best in the world. Strong rules and enforcement combined with companies dedicated to production, environmental and safety excellence is the way to become world class."

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