Pennsylvania's Independent Regulator Review Commission (IRRC) on Thursday approved 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 regulations, which 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, were previously approved by the state's Environmental Quality Board (see Daily GPI, May 18).

"As the natural gas industry expands to access the Marcellus Shale reserves in Pennsylvania, the volume of wastewater returned to our streams could increase exponentially, and the only way to protect our water resources is to implement new wastewater treatment standards for the drilling industry," said Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary John Hanger. "The National Association of Water Companies and many other individuals and groups across the state strongly support the adoption of this rule and I commend the Independent Regulatory Review Commission for taking this action. All other industries are responsible for the waste they generate and the drilling industry should be no exception."

The proposed regulations, which still face reviews by the Pennsylvania Senate Environment Committee and the state's attorney general, would require drillers to treat wastewater to drinking water quality at the discharge pipe if they choose to return drilling wastewater to rivers and streams.

"There is not a single water treatment facility in Pennsylvania that could meet this unreasonable benchmark, which will not provide any additional environmental benefit," said Kathryn Klaber, executive director of the producer-led Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC). "Our industry is working aggressively and constantly to improve our water management practices, as one of our top priorities has been and remains the protection of our rivers, lakes, streams and tributaries.

In fact, MSC members are now recycling nearly 60% of the water from this process. Many are recycling almost 100% of their water, thanks to new technologies and the unwavering commitment to environmental protection.

"There is a need for commonsense regulations that encourage the production job-creating natural gas throughout the Commonwealth and aim to keep our water clean. Unfortunately, these rules will make responsible shale gas development more difficult, and the jobs and economic benefits created throughout this process less likely, without positively impacting Pennsylvania's water quality."

The environmentalist group Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture) applauded the IRRC vote, and another that approved rules requiring some developers to maintain or create a 150-foot natural vegetative buffer beside rivers and streams.

"Frankly, I'm tired of the 'yes, buts' from the drillers, and to a lesser extent from the development community," said PennFuture CEO Jan Jarrett. "They always claim they want to protect our environment and economy, but then they fight against commonsense regulations requiring them to do so. And the recent drilling accidents make it clear to every Pennsylvanian that we need strong regulations in place to protect the public, workers, and natural resources."

The IRRC vote came one day after Hanger told a state Senate panel that lawmakers should look to the recent crafting of "one of the most comprehensive underground mine safety laws in the country" for inspiration when they consider the further regulation of Marcellus Shale natural gas activities in Pennsylvania (see Daily GPI, June 17).

A House vote on state budget legislation, which includes language that would place a severance tax on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, was postponed Tuesday after Democrats reportedly were unable to come to an agreement about how the estimated $140 million in added revenue would be distributed.

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