Appalachian Basin

Latest Duke Study Has Nothing to Do with Shale Development

Last week, researchers from Duke, Dartmouth and Stanford Universities released a study focused on two “potentially hazardous contaminants” – ammonium and iodide – which, they state, are found at high levels in both unconventional and conventional wastewater. They then suggest that high levels of ammonium and iodide are being discharged by water treatment plants, even though  they did not measure ammonium and iodide in public water treatment plants.

As EID has noted many times before, Marcellus producers stopped sending flowback water to treatment facilities in April 2011,  and that includes the facilities referenced in this latest report. To the researchers’ credit, they do admit:

“In May 2011, oil and gas waste (OGW) disposal through POTWs and WWTP was terminated… several of the brine treatment sites reported accepting only produced waters from conventional oil and gas operations.” (Pg. B)

On that same note, Fluid Recovery Services, which operates one of the treatment plants referenced in the study – Josephine Brine Treatment Facility – released the following message in 2013:

“Fluid Recovery Services (FRS) is in full compliance with the PA DEP permitting requirements and agreements. The facility is operating under the authorized NPDES permits and has not processed any wastewater classified as originating from unconventional sources such as Marcellus Shale since 2011.” (emphasis added)

This admission – that the use of treatment facilities by Marcellus producers was terminated in 2011 – is particularly relevant considering that two of the researchers (Avner Vengosh and Nathanial Warner from Duke University) also released a report in 2013 claiming to have found “elevated levels of radioactivity” in a western Pennsylvania creek, which they blamed on wastewater generated by Marcellus Shale development.  In a follow up report they even accused Marcellus producers of “illegal dumping.”

We appreciate that the researchers have finally admitted that Marcellus shale developers are  not bringing flowback to water treatment plants, yet they still group conventional and unconventional wastewater together. In turn, not making this distinction has allowed people to interpret the data inaccurately and generate disingenuous headlines about hydraulic fracturing in the Appalachian region.

According to the report:

“Several of the brine treatment sites reported accepting only produced waters from conventional oil and gas operations.”

Since the first conventional well was developed in Pennsylvania and the technology was available, oil and gas operators have been using various water management services, including Pennsylvania Brine Treatment and Hart Resource Technologies, which have decades of experience. These companies were merged with FRS in 2013 to expand their network from three to five central water management facilities located in Franklin, Josephine, Creekside, Rouseville and Tioga.  Three of these facilities are mentioned in the report. According to a statement from FRS, these facilities operate under full compliance with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection permitting requirements and agreements.

While conventional oil and gas operators continue to bring waste to brine treatment plants, a report from the American Society of Civil Engineers found that amount continues to decrease:

“…Use of this treatment option has declined from 3.18 to 2.27 Mbbls from 2006 to 2012. Reuse of conventional produced water increased significantly in 2012 (to 43% of the total volume).”

Also worth noting is that the water quality in Southwest Pennsylvania, where the study takes place, continues to improve.  Recently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) removed the Monongahela River from a list of impaired waterways in Pennsylvania. According to a Pennsylvania American Water spokesman:

“The improvement to the river’s water quality is the result of hard work by industry, regulators, environmental educators and watershed organizations to address pollution.”

In other words, water quality has greatly improved while oil and gas development has skyrocketed in the region.

It should come as no surprise that the funding for this study came from the Park Foundation, whose president has previously stated:

“In our work to oppose fracking, the Park Foundation has simply helped fuel an army of courageous individuals and NGOs…”

A quick look into the Park Foundation’s 2014 grant money shows their penchant for funding well-known anti-fracking groups and numerous studies and “investigative reports” denigrating shale development.

While one particular funding source doesn’t necessarily disqualify a report, it does provide important context for why these same Duke researchers continue to put out study after study – with serious flaws – maligning the oil and natural gas industry.

To sum up: the study lumps conventional and unconventional wastewater together, even though Marcellus producers stopped bringing wastewater to treatment plants in 2011 (and are now recycling 90 percent of their flowback water).  Meanwhile as shale development has skyrocketed in Pennsylvania the water quality of the Monongahela River has continued to improve.  With all this in mind, it’s not clear if the report’s intention was to malign fracking by cleverly presenting data on wastewater that doesn’t come from fracking, or if it was just poorly written.

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