MDN In-depth: Marcellus Wastewater Discharges via Municipal Sewage Treatment Plants into PA Waterways

A number of stories have circulated since last week when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) asked Marcellus Shale drillers to voluntarily (or else) stop using municipal sewage treatment plants by May 19 to treat and release drilling wastewater into PA’s rivers and streams (read MDN’s story here). One of the latest articles is (gasp) a pretty balanced article from the Associated Press, so let’s give credit where credit is due since MDN has previously stated almost all of AP’s reporting on the drilling industry is skewed against it.

Below is a list of things we learn from the most recent AP missive, along with MDN’s thoughts. First the background and history, then an examination of the chemistry, and finally what changed the drilling industry’s collective mind about this issue, including who the “real” culprit in all of this may be.

A bit of background and history:

  • As far back as 2008, Range Resources and Atlas Energy (now part of Chevron) told former DEP secretary John Hanger that the state’s rules on discharges of wastewater into PA waterways was too permissive and a potential danger from high levels of total dissolved solids (TDS’).
  • Since that time, both Range and Atlas worked hard to find alternative methods to either recycle or dispose of their wastewater.
  • After a series of reports, pressure from the media, and pressure from the federal EPA (over drinking water issues), Range started actively lobbying other drillers to encourage them to put their house in order on the issue of wastewater disposal.
  • But most other drillers felt that goals like 100 percent recycling of wastewater to be reused in drilling operations was a long-term rather than short-term reality.
  • In 2008 the state DEP curtailed the amount of wastewater sent to treatment plants along the Monongahela River, a major source of drinking water for Pittsburgh, after complaints that the water had been affected.
  • Also in 2008 the DEP created new rules about drilling wastewater being treated only at plants that were designed to treat TDS’ and could turn out effluent (treated wastewater) that would meet drinking water standards.
  • However, the new rules by the DEP had an exception clause that allowed existing municipal sewage treatment plants to continue accepting drilling wastewater, even though they were not designed to treat TDS’. That meant between 15 and 27 plants continued to accept and discharge drilling wastewater into PA waterways.

Why high TDS’ (total dissolved solids) are potentially a bad thing:

  • TDS’ are said to be “salty” and sometimes referred to as brine. TDS’ by themselves, even in large quantities, are not natively harmful.
  • But high TDS’ can upset ecosystems—introduce too much salt into a freshwater system and it will affect freshwater fish and vegetation.
  • TDS’ contain bromide. Bromide by itself is fine. It’s found abundantly in sea water.
  • Chlorine is used in most (all?) municipalities to treat drinking water.
  • However, the combination of bromide and chlorine is the real concern. That combination can produce trihalomethanes which in some studies have shown a link to an increase in human cancer rates—if those humans are exposed to the trihalomethanes for years.
  • The bromide/chlorine/trihalomethanes situation is not an imminent threat to public health in PA (yet)—but it is a cause for concern and something to be prevented.

What changed the mind of the driller industry and spurred them into action on this issue:

  • Some 15 months ago a small group of researchers set out to collect data on the level of bromide in PA waterways where drilling wastewater was being treated and released.
  • Two of those researchers are Jeanne VanBriesen, a professor of civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and Stanley States, director of water quality at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
  • A few weeks ago, Range Resources asked VanBriesen to present preliminary findings on bromide levels to a group of drillers.
  • VanBriesen has documented a number of waterways with high levels of bromide, but interestingly only one of those affected waterways, the South Fork Tenmile Creek, has a treatment plant that treats and releases Marcellus drilling wastewater.
  • According to VanBriesen, “It is equally possible…the majority of the [bromide] pollution is being caused by wastewater discharges from coal-fired power plants.”
  • Even though it appears coal-fired power plants are the “real” culprit in elevated bromide levels in waterways, the report by VanBriesen was enough to spur gas drillers into action.
  • Partly because they genuinely believe they may be contributing to the bromide problem, and partly for good public relations, all gas drillers will stop hauling wastewater to municipal sewage treatment plants by the May 19 deadline.

What have we learned?

  1. Range Resources and Atlas Energy should be applauded for their early efforts in addressing the wastewater issue. And Range especially should be applauded for prodding, cajoling and otherwise bringing along their competitors (and fellow drillers) on this issue, to get them to focus on it and do something about it.
  2. In matters of public health, the drilling industry must err on the side of caution. Even though in all likelihood the majority of bromide pollution is not being caused by gas drilling wastewater, some of it likely is, and in the interest of protecting public health, drillers must take action.
  3. Don’t try to hide a problem—get it out in the open as early and transparently as possible. It is only when problems are dealt with publicly and fully that the public will trust the drilling industry.
  4. For those who have been caustically critical of the new Corbett administration with accusations of being in the back pocket of drilling interests, within four months of taking office Corbett and his new DEP secretary Michael Krancer reviewed the data and took decisive action that will lead to a better/healthier result for the public.

Read the full AP story by clicking the link below.

Elmira Star-Gazette/AP (Apr 24, 2011) – Marcellus Shale: Gas-drilling wastewater disposal faces change