The Corbett Administration is asking natural gas drillers to stop delivering their wastewater to 15 treatment facilities most of which are in western Pennsylvania.
Governor Ed Rendell had allowed the centers, which discharge liquid into waterways, to continue treating hydraulic fracturing fluid under old guidelines, even though Pennsylvania toughened its standards last year. The Department of Environmental Protection’s announcement frames the change as a way to cut back on the amount of bromides in western Pennsylvania waterways. “Recent surface water sampling has found elevated levels of bromide in rivers. …Bromide, itself non-toxic, turns into a combination of potentially unsafe compounds called Total Trihalomethanes once it is combined with chlorine for disinfection at water treatment facilities,” read the DEP statement. Just before the department announced its shift, the Marcellus Shale Coalition admitted drilling wastewater is likely responsible for those increased bromide levels.
The change is earning Corbett rare praise from the environmental groups who have criticized his administration’s regulation of natural gas drilling. “It puts the state back in line with the Clean Water Act, because the simple fact is no one has ever sought a permit to discharge natural gas drilling wastewater,” said Brady Russell, Clean Water Action’s eastern Pennsylvania director. “There is no Clean Water Act exemption there. You have to seek permits for any stream of waste that you’re going to discharge into rivers and streams.” Jan Jarrett, the president and CEO of PennFuture, called it “an appropriate response to new information” about bromide levels. “So the only rational response is to absolutely ratchet down on that and try to get it out of the water altogether. And this is a great step in that direction, since publicly owned treatment plants -- sewage treatment plants run by municipalities – aren’t equipped to treat those kinds of substances,” she said.
It’s important to note this is a request, and not an order. DEP spokeswoman Katie Gresh framed it as “a call to action” for drilling companies. She said the agency will reevaluate the situation in 30 days, and may possibly issue an order at that point.
If drilling companies comply with the request, they’ll likely have to recycle or treat more of their fracking fluid on-site, or truck it out to centers that can treat the fluid at the higher standards.
The water treatment facilities include the Clairton City Municipal Authority and McKeesport City Municipal Authority; the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority in Westmoreland County; New Castle City Sanitation Authority in Lawrence County; Johnstown Redevelopment Authority; Franklin Township Sewage Authority in Greene County; and, Tunnelton Liquids Co. and Hart Resource Technologies Inc. in Indiana County.