Monday, May 7, 2012

Fracking Wastewater Disposal Is Complicated

Most of New York State’s drilling waste is sent to sewage-treatment
 plants within the state, like the one in Auburn, N.Y
Heather Ainsworth for The New York Times
A Niagara Falls water utility wanted to treat toxic waste from natural-gas drilling at its sewage-treatment plant once hydrofracking gets under way in New York State. But in a unanimous vote, the Niagara Falls City Council blocked the plan this spring by banning the treatment, transport, storage and disposal of drilling fluids within city limits.

The thought of having fracking fluids trucked into the city, treated and discharged into the Niagara River frightened local residents, many of whom still recall the Love Canal environmental crisis of the 1970s.

As New York State environmental regulators fine-tune proposed rules governing horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial natural-gas extraction process, wastewater has emerged as a challenging issue for the industry and regulators.

The drilling involves injecting vast amounts of water and chemicals into underground shale to release the gas. Should it begin in New York, the gas wells could generate hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater annually, and it is not clear where it could go.

Federal officials have warned that New York should not count on the disposal options that it now uses for salty wastewater from conventional gas wells, which produce far less waste than fracking.

Most of the state’s conventional drilling waste stays in New York and is sent to sewage-treatment plants like one in Auburn, N.Y., near Syracuse or is used to de-ice roads or tamp down dust on them, state regulators said. The state also sends waste to privately owned treatment plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In written comments on New York’s proposed fracking rules, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has said that the state should ban the use of fracking brine on roads because pollutants could make their way into aquifers and waterways through infiltration and storm runoff.

The agency also warned that there was probably not enough capacity at out-of-state treatment plants to handle polluted water from New York.

The E.P.A. is currently working on national pretreatment standards for waste headed for municipal sewage-treatment plants or private treatment plants, after finding that many of them are not properly equipped to treat this type of wastewater and may be discharging pollutants to rivers and other streams.

Building new treatment plants for the fracking industry is another option, but industry representatives say that doing so would depend on whether the investment makes economic sense. Complicating matters, antifracking sentiment has already led to dozens of bans or limits on fracking-related operations, like the measure in Niagara Falls.

The state environmental agency has already made clear that specific disposal plans must be in place before any drilling permits will be issued — and that finding sites will be up to the gas industry. (NYT, 5/3/2012)

Group Challenges DEC Lack of Info On Fracking Waste

Environmental Advocates, an environmental lobbying group, has challenged the state Department of Environmental Conservation in a report Friday claiming that the state fails to keep track of waste generated by low-volume natural gas hydrofracking. After examining DEC paperwork for 100 existing gas wells located in Western New York and the Finger Lakes region, researchers for Environmental Advocates of New York claimed the agency's records made it "nearly impossible" to track drilling waste from individual wells to disposal.

The report from the not-for-profit group was based on DEC records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act. It claimed that "DEC does not know how much drilling waste is being produced or where it is going. Only the gas companies know, and they're not talking."

Low-volume vertical hydrofracking is legal in the state, unlike high-volume horizontal hydrofracking, which uses the same blend of chemicals, water and sand, but in much larger quantities over a much larger underground area.

Opponents fear the horizontal technique could pollute air and groundwater, but the industry argues it is safe. DEC has been studying the issue for more than three years amid an ever-louder debate. A state decision remains pending.

A vertical well could produce up to 200 gallons of wastewater a day, much less than the millions of gallons produced by a horizontal well. There are about 6,600 gas wells operating in the state, with about 90 percent using the low-volume technique, the report said.

State law exempts hydrofracking waste from being monitored under hazardous waste law, which would provide a clearer paper trail of what was in the waste, how much came from a well, and where it was disposed.

In 2010, according to DEC, there were about 23.6 million gallons of hydrofracking waste produced in the state, including salty brine water brought up from underground. More than 10 million gallons were sent to municipal sewer treatment plants, and another 6.8 million gallons were spread on local roads to hold down dust or provide traction during winter months. Another 6 million gallons were sent to other states for treatment or disposal. (Times Union, 5/4/2012)