Marcellus Shale Drilling May Provide a Solution to Coal Mine Water Runoff Problem

Pennsylvania has a decades old problem with abandoned coal mines. The mines fill with rain water. The water becomes highly acidic and contains dissolved metals such as iron, aluminum and manganese. The water then runs off into waterways and is responsible for thousands of miles of streams that are uninhabitable for wildlife and not suitable for human use. Marcellus Shale gas drilling may provide at least a partial solution to the problem.

University of Pittsburgh professor Radisav D. Vidic is studying how drillers could make use of mine drainage water, since thousands of gallons flow untreated into waterways statewide every day. It would keep that toxic drainage out of water supplies and stop drillers from using tanker trucks that burn gasoline and crush roads while hauling water to well sites, Vidic said.

Chevron and Samson Investment Co. hold permits to use mine water in Greene and Somerset counties. They’re permitted to use as much as 323,000 gallons a day, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Consol Energy Inc. executives said last month that they’re planning to sell mine water for use in shale drilling.

Two other proposals under state review could expand its use in Somerset County and add Indiana County to the list, said Brian Dillemuth, a water pollution biologist at the department’s southwest regional office.

There is some environmental concern about using that water in shale drilling, because it could spill or leach into drinking water supplies, Dillemuth said. But mine drainage is the bigger, more expensive, long-standing problem — and it’s getting into water supplies, said Dillemuth, Vidic and others who support the idea.

About 150,000 gallons of untreated mine water seep into the upper Monongahela River and its tributaries every minute….That’s why environmental groups, including the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, support the idea.*

But will this idea take hold and will gas drillers actually start using mine water? It’s not a foregone conclusion, largely because of legal issues:

The industry’s early use of mine water has been limited to purified mine drainage, Vidic and Pitzarella said [Matt Pitzarella is a spokesman for Range Resources]. Vidic’s goal is to make mine water usable with minimal treatment: the only way it could become a cheap, widely available source for the shale gas industry.

Even if that problem is solved, drillers don’t want to get caught up in the state’s long-standing mine problems, Pitzarella said. For abandoned mines there’s no owner the state can force to pay for water treatment or environmental damage. Drillers worry that if they tap a pool of mine water, the state might try to make them pay to treat it, even when they no longer need it, Pitzarella said.

"There’s the whole ‘if you touch it, you own it’ thing," he said. "We’ve studied it; we know it can be done. The problem is that no one wants to use it and then be told later, ‘OK, now you’re responsible for all of this forever.’"*

*Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (May 22, 2011) – Shale drillers eye mine drainage for fluid