Pennsylvania is the epicenter of the Marcellus Shale gas boom. With that boom have come questions about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater supplies and the handling of drilling wastewater. The EPA sent the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) a letter of inquiry on March 7 into the state's oversight of drilling wastewater. This letter summarized a number of areas of concern:
Nevertheless, several sources of data, including reports required by PADEP, indicate that the wastewater resulting from gas drilling operations (including flowback from hydraulic fracturing and other fluids produced from gas production wells) contains variable and sometimes high concentrations of materials that may present a threat to human health and aquatic environment, including radionuclides, organic chemicals, metals and total dissolved solids. Many ofthese substances are not completely removed by wastewater treatment facilities, and their discharge may cause or contribute to impaired drinking water quality for downstream users, or harm aquatic life. In addition, high concentrations of these substances may adversely impact the treatment facilities themselves, impairing their ability to remove fecal coliform and other common contaminants in domestic sewage.
Meanwhile, the Republican governor of PA just gave oversight of all environmental permits to the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), which is headed by an energy executive. It is safe to assume that compliance with the Clean Water Act is not going to be high on the list of priorities.
As noted by Abrahm Lustgarten at ProPublica, Tea Party darling governor Tom Corbett has initiated a two-pronged attack on environmental regulation in PA. First, he is gutting the budget for the DEP across the board, including funding for water safety and treatment programs. The previous administration was slow to react to the gas drilling boom in funding inspection and testing programs, but increased funding over the past two years. Corbett is not merely content to cut the DEP off at the knees in reversing funding for the agency. He is giving ultimate veto power over the DEP to the DCED with a sweep of the pen.
Regulatory Reform: Friction-free processes for government interaction with job creators are critical to maintain economic momentum and competitiveness. State government needs to be a partner with job creators. To address the length of time agencies take to act on permits and eliminate permit backlogs, PennDOT and DEP have begun auditing and assessing all of their permit processes to make them more responsive to the needs of job creators. In addition, the DCED secretary is empowered to expedite any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted.
It remains to be seen how far Corbett will go in endangering the public to profit the gas industry, but his actions to date have hardly been subtle. He relentlessly attacked environmental regulations during his campaign for governor. After declaring victory, his first appointment was C. Alan Walker to head DCED. Walker is the owner of a large coal and gas company, not to mention the largest benefactor of Corbett. Walker and DCED is then given veto power over any permit or regulatory action under the canard of promoting job creation. The Corbett budget also claims gas drilling will create 200,000 jobs in PA by 2020 (estimate courtesy of shale gas industry).
As noted by Earthjustice, Corbett's actions appear to break new ground.
“I have never seen anybody give an economic development director the authority to tell every other agency in the state what to do with regard to its statutory responsibilities,” said Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group active on drilling issues. “The law requires that you not pollute the waters of Pennsylvania, and if he tries to speed up an application that makes it possible that that is going to happen then I think he is clearly operating outside of his authority.”
One potential fly in the ointment is concern over the handling of drilling wastewater. The New York Times pointed to lax regulation of drilling wastewater in an article that appeared on February 27. Each well generates a large volume of wastewater, which can have potentially harmful levels of metals, minerals, radium and other radionuclides, hydrocarbons, and drilling chemical compounds. The infrastructure to treat large volumes of heavily-contaminated drilling wastewater does not exist. Under the best of circumstances, the wastewater is treated through sewage treatment plants before being released in surface waters.
The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.
Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.
The Times went on to point out that while federal and state regulators have lots of documents raising lots of concerns, no one is systematically testing treated water for residual toxins or radioactivity.
But the E.P.A. has not intervened. In fact, federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008.
In other words, there is no way of guaranteeing that the drinking water taken in by all these plants is safe.
A week after the Times article was published, there was a flurry of activity. The EPA notified the DEP that a detailed wastewater handling and testing protocol was needed. On the very same day, the DEP released test data that claimed to show no evidence of drilling compounds or radiation above normal background levels in 7 state rivers in the heart of drilling country. The industry claimed vindication and demanded medals and ponies. The DEP thumbed its nose at the Times, EPA, and treehugging dirty hippies.
None of the released test documents or publicly available DEP documents give key details of the testing protocol. For example, the tests were conducted at select public water intake sites, but never mentioned where those sites are in relation to sewage treatment plants handling drilling wastewater. It is also impossible to tell if all test data were released or only the cream of the cherry crop. Likewise, the fate of wastewater trucked out of the area remains something of a mystery. The Times noted that some of the drilling wastewater was sent to New York and West Virginia. And of course the DEP hardly has the resources to verify that drilling wastewater is not being dumped into abandoned mines, small streams, or local roads.
Another report just surfaced, this one showing that the DEP data on drilling wastewater handling and recycling are flawed.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's statistics on Marcellus Shale natural-gas activity contain serious flaws and inconsistencies, and do not accurately report the volume of wastewater being reused in the industry's much-touted recycling efforts.
The DEP's most recent statewide statistics on wastewater production overstate by nearly two times the amount of wastewater produced during the last six months of 2010 largely because one of the 39 operators who filed reports last month inadvertently entered the wrong data in its forms.
Oops. And we are not talking about a minor rounding error...
Before the Seneca error was discovered, the industry reported recycling about 6 million of 10.6 million barrels of wastewater during the last half of 2010 - about 57 percent of the total.
But Seneca's inflated numbers represented about 5.2 million barrels of the recycled water. So when its numbers are revised downward, the total volume of wastewater reported recycled falls to 17 percent.
To the uncharitable of mind, it looks like the script called for the DEP to release pretty pictures, pronounce state waters pure, and Walker's DCED would approve permits and stop bleeding heart regulations from getting in the way of the gas boom. Meanwhile, coal and now gas giant Consol Energy is looking to make a small fortune off laundering drilling wastewater for the state and drillers. Consol even plans to market their acid mine wastewater as fracking fluid.
There is an amusing line on the DCED website proclaiming that one of its primary objectives is to promote "Pennsylvania as a top tourism destination for both domestic and international visitors and businesses." Just don't drink the water.