Barges and Fracking: Separating Fact from Fiction

When the Coast Guard published its Proposed Policy Letter to allow wastewater from hydraulic fracturing to be shipped by barge, anti-fracking activists flew into hysterics, rampantly spreading misinformation and alarmism about the supposed risks. It’s worth noting that these same activists have been silent about the numerous other substances – such as jet fuel, gasoline, kerosene, benzene, fertilizers, toluene and ammonia – that are transported safely by barges every day. At this point, however, raw opportunism from the activist crowd should surprise no one.

As we’ve seen time and time again, it’s clear these claims from anti-fracking groups are based solely on their commitment to anti-fracking advocacy, not the facts.  Let’s take a moment to examine some of their claims in depth.

CLAIM: “There is spillage and accident potential onto land adjacent to river systems, and into the rivers themselves. The spills would involve toxic chemicals and radiation.” –Sierra Club et al.

FACT: Barge transportation is one of the safest and most environmentally friendly methods of shipment. It is also a method that the Obama administration endorses. A report by the National Waterways Foundation, which is also promoted on, finds that barges have the lowest spill rates:

“All transport modes work hard to prevent accidents, human errors and other causes of spills, including groundings in the case of barge transportation. Overall, spill rates are very low – with trucks losing only 6.06 gallons per one million ton-­miles, rail cars only 3.86 gallons and barges 3.6 gallons per one million ton-miles.”

This follows a 2011 report produced by the Government Accountability Office, which compared air pollution, fatality and congestion rates among a variety of transportation options. The report concluded that barge transportation posed the lowest risk in all three categories.

Further, as many news outlets have pointed out, the barges that would transport the wastewater would be double-hulled and fully enclosed, which means that there would be two layers of thick steel and a protective covering.

CLAIM: “Barges can carry almost 60 times as many gallons of wastewater as trucks and the risk of spill is much greater when it comes to barge accidents.” – Food and Water Watch

FACT: Food & Water Watch is actually half-right, but its comment underscores the efficiency of barge transportation – as well as the hypocrisy of Food & Water Watch. As the United States Department of Transportation points out, one barge has the liquid cargo capacity of 144 trucks. When you calculate that in terms of miles and energy efficiency, the results are staggering:

“Moving America’s coal, grain, petroleum and chemical products, iron and steel, aggregates, and containers on the nation’s navigable rivers is the most energy-efficient way to transport freight. Barges can move 1 ton of cargo 576 miles for the same amount of fuel as it takes a rail car to carry the same amount of cargo 413 miles, and a truck to haul it 155 miles.”

Ironically, Food & Water Watch has been a cheerleader for advanced fuel efficiency mandates, but apparently thinks actual fuel efficiency is a bad thing. Wrap your head around that one.

CLAIM: “Frack waste is highly toxic and, according to the Coast Guard, contains so much radioactivity that it requires special handling. If spilled into a river the toxic components can contaminate drinking water supplies and be deadly to fish and aquatic life.”Riverkeeper

FACT:  More than 99 percent of hydraulic fracturing fluid is made up of water and sand; only a small portion is made up of chemicals, many of which are the same household materials that can be found under any kitchen sink. One of the largest and most common fracturing fluid additives is guar gum, which is an ingredient in ice cream, toothpaste, and many other household products.

The wastewater that is generated after hydraulic fracturing operations is essentially salt, sand and water. While there are certainly some naturally occurring radioactive materials in the wastewater, the U.S. Coast Guard has set specific limits such that the radiation levels must be under a certain threshold. From the Proposed Policy Letter:

“As an initial condition to determine if SGEWW can be carried as Conditionally Permitted SGEWW, both the radioactivity concentration limit and the consignment activity limit for each radioactive isotope present in the SGEWW may not exceed the values established below. Furthermore, consignment barge loads of Conditionally Permitted SGEWW may not exceed transport limits established below. The radioactivity concentration limit, consignment activity limit, and transport limit must be determined for every radioactive isotope present in the SGEWW” (p. 6).

In fact, the levels set by the Coast Guard may even be excessively stringent, as they require strict limitations on Ra-266 and Ra-288, which are naturally occurring and of limited concern to human health.

CLAIM: “…the Coast Guard still appears willing to protect industrial secrecy of the poisonous contents through a grant of ‘proprietary’ secrecy of these poisonous radioactive wastes.”Sierra Club et al

FACT: First, producers disclose what’s in their fracking fluid through, a searchable database that provides records for more than 55,000 wells across the country.  The website has been so effective that President Obama’s own former energy and climate adviser, Heather Zichal, said this about it: “As an administration, we believe that FracFocus is an important tool that provides transparency to the American people.”  FracFocus, by the way, is an effort led by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC).

In addition, the Coast Guard’s Proposed Policy Letter requires that barge operators have the waste water tested for chemical components “before transporting SGEWW by barge”:

“The report of analysis must include the laboratory name, the date and location the samples were taken, and the date the samples were analyzed, and identify all chemical components listed on PA Form 26R as well as any other components in the SGEWW, specifically including any chemical components that were injected into the well and/or produced by reactions or decompositions of those injected components. If the analysis indicates the presence of hazardous material as defined in 46 CFR Subchapter D or O, the barge owner must comply with all applicable regulations. If the SGEWW contains hazardous material, as defined in 46 CFR 153.2, other than Ra-226 and Ra-228, that is not listed in 46 CFR 153, it may not be transported in bulk without the prior specific approval of the Commandant pursuant to 46 CFR 153.900. The barge owner must retain the reports of analysis for two years and make them available for Coast Guard inspection on request” (p. 6).

CLAIM: “Venting can release dangerous air pollution, impacting public health and wildlife.” – Riverkeeper

FACT: As the Code of Federal Regulations shows, venting is “required” on “all tank barges, subject to the provisions of this subchapter the construction or conversion of which is started on or after July 1, 1951, each cargo tank shall be equipped with a vent…”

A closer look at the Proposed Policy Letter shows that it is not the kind of scary picture Riverkeeper is trying to paint, either.  As the Coast Guard states, a barge owner actually must ensure that the barge has a venting system. In a subsection entitled “Venting” the letter reads:

“Daily temperature changes can cause variations in tank pressure, and open venting provides pressure relief, preventing over- or under-pressurization of the tanks. Closed or restricted venting would trap the radon in the head space of the tank. Therefore, as a ‘design and equipment’ requirement under 46 CFR 153.900(d)(2)(ii) and as an ‘additional requirement’ under 46 CFR 153.900(d)(2)(iii), the barge owner must ensure that each barge to which the endorsement or letter described in paragraph 8.b is issued has open venting and must ensure that personnel avoid areas where gas from the tanks may escape, especially during loading and offloading. The owner may meet these requirements by ensuring that operational policy instructs personnel to avoid the tank vents and that personnel comply with that instruction” (p. 4).

As noted earlier, the Proposed Policy Letter focuses on radionuclides of both Ra-226 and Ra-228, which are naturally occurring and of limited concern for public health, so venting from these substances will not cause “dangerous air pollution” as Riverkeeper claims. If it did, why would the Coast Guard require it?

Further, venting has been standard operating procedures for barges since the 1950s. As the National Waterways Foundation pamphlet promoted on points out, air pollution from barge transportation is by far the lowest of any of the transportation methods:

“In fact, barges produce the least amount of air pollution of all commercial transportation modes.”

CLAIM: “Along with bromides, the gas shale drilling wastes contain radioactive elements. For example, radiation from the Marcellus shale flow-back has appeared in discharges from the Josephine water treatment plant, which enters Black Lick Creek in Indiana County, PA.” Izaak Walton League of America (Harry Enstrom Chapter)

FACT: This is a reference to a study by Duke University researchers, which has received wide criticism for its faulty methodology.  While its flaws are numerous, it’s worth pointing out here that it blames “elevated levels of radioactivity” in a western Pennsylvania creek on wastewater generated from the Marcellus Shale, from as late as November 2012 – but Marcellus operators stopped sending wastewater to treatment facilities in May 2011.

When state regulators conducted a series of tests on drinking water suppliers in western Pennsylvania, they found no radioactive contaminants in the water. As the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported:

“A battery of tests has showed no radioactive contaminants in the water used and produced at 12 of 14 drinking water suppliers in Western Pennsylvania, according to state environmental regulators.”

CLAIM: “Major river locks will be at risk of fire and contamination with radioactive and flammable waste.”Freshwater Accountability Project Ohio

FACT:  Wastewater is essentially saltwater – it is not flammable. We note Freshwater Accountability Project says nothing of the numerous other (actually flammable) substances such as gasoline, kerosene, benzene, fertilizers, toluene and ammonia that are transported by barges every day.

In the end, much of this drama is misplaced considering that barge transportation – or any method of transportation for that matter – is only one option for wastewater. As we’ve pointed out many times, wastewater recycling is becoming standard operating procedure for the industry.  As the AP recently reported, “Recycling is rapidly becoming a popular and economic solution for a burgeoning industry,” and according to the Pennsylvania DEP, producers in the Marcellus are now recycling 90 percent of their flowback water.

Could it be that anti-fracking activists just see this as another opportunity to score headlines? Perish the thought!

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