Appalachian Basin

Report on Fracking Wastewater Ignores Standard Procedures in Pennsylvania

A recent study, authored by researchers from Stanford and Duke University and titled Enhanced Formation of Disinfection Byproducts in Shale Gas Wastewater-Impacted Drinking Water Supplies, essentially rehashes what industry and regulators have known for years: that wastewater from fracking should not be treated at water treatment facilities and released into river waters.  That’s exactly why Marcellus producers stopped using such treatment facilities back in 2011.

However, that didn’t stop news outlets from producing unnecessarily alarming and misleading headlines like the one from State Impact, which purports, “Treated fracking wastewater could still threaten drinking water.”

According to the study, its purpose:

“…Was to obtain an initial estimate of the minimum contribution of HFW to river waters that would result in significant alterations to DBP formation upon chlorination, chloramination, or ozonation.”

The study used hydraulic fracturing waste from the Marcellus and Fayetteville shales to determine their effect on surface water after being treated at municipal and commercial treatment plants. According to the study, this was only a fraction of waste prior to 2011:

“After Marcellus Shale development began, a fraction of hydraulic fracturing waste-waters (HFWs) in Pennsylvania were sent to either publically owned treatment works (POTWs) for municipal wastewater treatment or commercial wastewater treatment (CWT) plants for oil and gas wastewaters and subsequently discharged to surface waters.” (A)

In April 2011, members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition (who make up 96 percent of all production in the Marcellus) announced to state regulators that they would no longer take hydraulic fracturing wastewater or flowback to treatment plants that discharge into surface water, something the study acknowledges:

“The 2011 voluntary request by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA-DEP) to halt the disposal of oil and gas-associated wastewaters to treatment plants discharging to surface water decreased the bromide loads to some wastewater treatment plants and diverted oil and gas-associated wastewaters to Ohio for deep well injection.” (B)

Just as a bit of background, one of the researchers in this latest study, Avner Vengosh, was also involved in another study last year, which suggested that Marcellus producers were responsible for “elevated levels of radioactivity” in a western Pennsylvania creek.  That study focused on the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, which producers stopped using in 2011, yet the researchers still blamed Marcellus development.  As Fluid Recovery Services, which operates the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, explained after that study came out:

“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)

A subsequent study also authored by Vengosh even accused producers of “illegal dumping or incomplete implementation of the ban”!

In its conclusion, this latest study makes a strange recommendation:

“Ultimately, enforcing zero discharge or establishing halide-specific treatment techniques at centralized brine treatment facilities may be desirable.” (G)

Since 2011, the industry has been doing exactly that. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, Marcellus shale operators are recycling 90 percent of their flowback with the other 10 percent being disposed of via deep well injection. The industry best practice of recycling flowback is not only happening above the Marcellus, but also in shale plays across the country. An Associated Press article recently highlighted the water recycling technology currently being used:

“Just a few years ago, many drillers suspected water recyclers were trying to sell an unproven idea designed to drain money from multimillion dollar businesses. Now the system is helping drillers use less freshwater and dispose of less wastewater. Recycling is rapidly becoming a popular and economic solution for a burgeoning industry.” (emphasis added)

Applying water recycling technology in Pennsylvania has also led to a decrease in freshwater consumption for oil and gas development. Andrew J. Gavin, deputy executive director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, was recently quoted in an Associated Press article where he highlighted the fact the Marcellus operators have deceased the amount of fresh water they withdraw from the river:

“Water use by the natural gas industry in the Susquehanna River Basin peaked at about 3.8 billion gallons in 2011 and that figure declined to about 3.1 billion gallons in 2013.” (emphasis added)

Through new technology and proper regulatory oversight, industry operations and practices will continue to improve. And as long as this industry operates in Pennsylvania it will continue to supply residents with family sustaining job opportunities and cheaper energy. Critics will also continue to levy unsubstantiated claims against development, trying to shut down this important economic engine. Thankfully, however, the facts are still the facts.


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