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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has a cozy relationship with shale gas drilling operations in the state. His rise to political power was largely bankrolled by Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy, and other big players in the natural gas industry. Since taking office, his administration has returned the favor in countless ways, including standing in the way of a severance tax on natural gas extraction and assessing only a tiny "impact fee" on drillers.

Given the Corbett administration's track record, this plan by the state Department of Environmental Protection is alarming.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has rescinded a Marcellus Shale wastewater treatment permit that would have allowed a New Jersey company to spread chemically contaminated salts on roadways, sidewalks and fields statewide. The DEP pulled the permit, issued in August to Integrated Water Technologies Inc., after admitting the required public notice about the permit did not accurately describe the permitted activity and the department hadn't fully considered the impact on the environment.
In other words, the DEP got caught trying to deceive the public about the permit. While the permit has been temporarily rescinded, the DEP intends to move forward with the plan after a new public comment period.

Wastewater from shale gas wells is hazardous and requires either specialized treatment or disposal in injection wells (typically depleted conventional oil wells). It contains high levels of mineral salts, heavy metals, drilling compounds, volatile organic compounds, and even radioactive materials. Because of the volume generated by Marcellus shale gas wells in Pennsylvania, the wastewater is quickly overwhelming existing storage and treatment infrastructure in the state.

A recently published study in Water Resources Research estimated that drilling wastewater in Pennsylvania has increased 570% since 2004. It also found that drillers are allowed considerable latitude in whether to classify wastewater as "flowback" (containing fracturing fluids) versus brine filled with naturally occurring minerals from the shale formation. The fact that only a third of the wastewater was classified as drilling waste "flowback" requiring specialized treatment is disconcerting.

The good news is that the Integrated Water Technologies process under consideration by DEP has received rigorous testing. The devil, however, is in the details. There are two product streams generated from the treatment process:

The first stream consists of the clean, distilled water (“DW”). The second, or concentrate water stream (“CW”), is the residual liquid solution remaining after approximately 80% of the pure H2O has been removed via the recycling process. This residual CW solution will contain nearly 100% of the salt products by weight contained in the original volume of the produced/frac water processed through the system in a 24-hour period of time. The clean DW produced during the recycling process will be available for re-use by natural gas producers in on-going drilling operations. The residual CW, containing nearly 100% of the salt products that enter the facility, will be removed from the site and transferred to an approved underground reinjection well or commercial disposal facility.
The second major concern is the disposition of CW solution, which can contain hazardous compounds. Tests of the CW (see Appendix D of the National Energy Test Lab report, pages 172-182) reveal extremely high concentrations of metals, radium, thorium, and other hazardous compounds. This is a serious issue because Integrated Water Technologies is asking for variance to treat the CW solution from their proprietary treatment process as having "beneficial use." In other words, they can make money from treating the wastewater, reselling the distilled water component back to the drill operators, and selling the CW solution as road and soil treatment products.

If the DEP creates a variance for the CW solution, they will be endangering water quality across the state and public health. From the article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the DEP intends to reissue the permit as long as there is no significant public outcry.

The DEP's original public notice described the permit narrowly -- for the treatment and processing of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations at Marcellus Shale gas wells. But after meeting privately with officials of the firm, the DEP issued a permit that allowed two chemical compounds originally classified as waste to be classified as "beneficial use" material that could be used as road and sidewalk de-icer, for roadway dust suppression and for soil stabilization in fields.

And, according to that altered permit, issued in August without public participation on those changes, those salty compounds -- crystallized sodium chloride and liquid calcium chloride -- also can contain limited amounts of arsenic, lead, mercury, ammonia, volatile organic compounds and diesel hydrocarbons.

Given the concentrations of heavy metals and other toxic compounds found in the test sample, spreading of the CW solution on paved surfaces and fields poses a significant threat to surface water quality and will increase nutrient pollution levels in the Chesapeake Bay basin. It is simply irresponsible, albeit predictable given the track record of the Corbett administration.

The plan is uncomfortably reminiscent of another environmental disaster - Times Beach. In that sordid little affair, a waste hauling company sprayed dioxin-contaminated fluids on area roadways to control dust. While the compounds in the CW solution from fracking wastewater are far less hazardous than dioxin, the volumes generated from the shale gas boom are extremely large and the environmental impact will be considerable.

Update: This insane practice is now legal in Ohio. (h/t laderrick)

Section 1509.226 of the Ohio Revised Code allows political subdivisions (counties, cities, towns, villages and townships) to authorize brine spraying on local roads for dust and ice control purposes. However, under ORC Section 1509.226, political subdivisions must pass an authorizing resolution before any brine spraying can occur. We strongly encourage concerned citizens to press their local governing bodies to repeal any brine application resolutions that are currently on the books.

Originally posted to DWG on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 12:17 PM PST.

Also republished by DKos Pennsylvania, Community Spotlight, and Pittsburgh Area Kossacks.

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