Appalachian Basin

New Penn State Wastewater Study Focuses On a Long Corrected Issue

Penn State University recently released a study claiming to find evidence of “lasting environmental damage” in Conemaugh River Lake it claims is attributable to Marcellus Shale wastewater treated at two centralized waste treatment (CWT) facilities. The study concludes that “regulatory agencies should develop and apply more restrictive effluent discharge limits for CWT plants that protect human health and the environment.”

But that is exactly what the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did six years ago – after the industry had already voluntarily stopped using treatment facilities of this nature for its unconventional waste. And that is just one of a number of key facts the media largely ignored or glossed over in their coverage of the study.

It is also worth noting that in gathering soil samples, the researchers identified “several other sources of contaminants… such as coal bed methane, coal mine drainage, and flue gas desulfurization releases that can impact surface water quality.” The researchers also noted that “a relatively small volume of O&G water relative to the volume of the stream… had a measurable impact.”

It is also worth clarifying that only one of the two facilities the study focused on actually ever accepted unconventional wastewater. The study even notes this, explaining that the Howard Treatment Facility (or CWT #2) “historically has accepted only conventional O&G wastewater.”

In fact, in all of the records that DEP has available from 2010 to 2016, there is not one record of this facility ever receiving unconventional wastewater. In other words, unlike the media reports that have latched onto this study as a red flag against the industry, the reality is one of the facilities included in the study doesn’t even treat “fracking wastewater” at all.

And though the researchers did find elevated levels of certain elements like radon and various elements in soil layers dating back five to 10 years ago, the high levels of these elements in the stream is actually well-known, easily explained, and has long since been corrected.

One of the two facilities the study focuses on – the Fluid Recovery Service Josephine Facility (or CWT #1) – did receive unconventional Marcellus wastewater until April 2011, when it stopped taking the waste until a major overhaul could be done of the facility’s equipment.

And while the authors of the Penn State study say they selected this specific location because the facilities historically received large volumes of unconventional wastewater (only one of which actually did) and because of the low flow of the stream, a more likely reason is that the Josephine facility was the subject of an EPA investigation that concluded in 2013. Though several tests by government agencies and private water testing companies found high levels of radon up to 20 meters downstream from the discharge site, the Pittsburgh Business Journal reported in 2013,

“Still, both the DEP and company officials stressed there was no danger to the health of plant workers or people walking by the stream at Josephine.”

Since upgrades were made there are only six reports – amounting to 161 barrels or 6,762 gallons – of the facility accepting unconventional wastewater for discharge. Most Marcellus wastewater that comes through the facility now is for recycling purposes.

A few things occurred during this time period and in the years following:

#1: New DEP regulations for wastewater for all industries were finalized in 2010, and supplemented with additional information on Total Dissolved Solids in November 2011.

 These regulations required all new or expanded treatment facilities had to be able to meet a standardized maximum level of total dissolved solids (TDS) prior to discharging water into streams, lakes and rivers. The regulations did not just apply to the shale industry, but to most industrial practices. Still, existing facilities were exempt until they performed upgrades, meaning there were still several facilities in Pennsylvania that could technically receive waste without meeting these higher standards.

This prompted DEP to ask – not regulate – Marcellus operators to halt sending wastewater to these older facilities in 2011. Water & Wastes Digest reported on this in 2010,

“DEP’s proposal of these new limits has already driven industry investment in new technologies to treat this wastewater which is high in TDS,” [former DEP Secretary John] Hanger said. “We are proving that if we hold the environmental bar high, the industry can and will rise to meet Pennsylvania’s expectations.”

“Hanger added that since the Department of Environmental Protection proposed these new rules, some businesses have moved to treat gas well wastewater for recycling by the natural gas industry rather than discharging it to Pennsylvania waterways.”

#2: The Marcellus industry voluntarily stopped sending wastewater to treatment facilities that discharged into surface water in May 2011.

 Not only did the industry “rise to meet Pennsylvania’s expectations,” but it did so swiftly and without regulations. In fact on April 20, 2011, the Marcellus Shale Coalition sent a letter to the DEP explaining that not only was the industry committed to halting “the delivery of flowback and produced water from shale gas extraction to the facilities that currently accept it under special provisions of last year’s Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) regulations,” but that the companies planned to do it by May 19, 2011. The letter continues,

“This action was spurred by our exposure to new research on increased levels of bromide in western Pennsylvania waterways and coming to a better understanding of how our industry can mitigate bromide loading. We expect to be actively involved with you and your department as we develop and implement the technologies and processes that will allow for the additional increase in water reuse and treatment in such a short period of time.”

In 2013, DEP gave a presentation that showed by 2012, nearly 90 percent of all wastewater from the Marcellus was being recycled and reused, with the remaining going to deep well injection.


#3: DEP conducted a comprehensive study of radiation from the Marcellus Shale in 2013.

 It is worth noting that in addition to its efforts to lessen the release of TDS in Commonwealth waters, DEP has conducted studies of radiation across the state in relation to Marcellus waste since 2011. The Pittsburgh Business Journal reported in 2013:

“In January 2013, the DEP announced a “comprehensive oil and gas development radiation study” and in that announcement stated that its sampling of rivers and streams around wastewater plants showed no cause for alarm.”

“’Most results showed no detectable levels of radioactivity, and the levels that were detectable did not exceed safe drinking water standards,’” the agency’s statement said.” (emphasis added)

In 2015, DEP released a comprehensive study of radiation that found in addition to other situations, “there is little potential for radiation exposure to workers and the public at facilities that treat O&G wastes.”

 So while the new Penn State study does address it a real issue, it is not a new one by any means. As Devesh Mittal, vice president and general manager of Aquatech Energy Services, the owner of the Josephine facility told the Pittsburg Business Journal in 2013:

“Essentially the approach is that whatever happened in the past should not happen. It is not conducive to the environment and to growth and being able to deliver these services to the industry.”

Unfortunately in its coverage of this study, the media missed a golden opportunity to share what is actually a fantastic example of the lengths the industry will go to lessen its environmental impact, especially here in Pennsylvania.




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