PA Environmentalist Groups Try to Make a Federal Case Against McKeesport Sewage Treatment Plant over Marcellus Wastewater

Two activist environmental organizations, Clean Water Action and Three Rivers Waterkeeper, are attempting to make a federal case against the McKeesport (Allegheny County) municipal sewage treatment plant that in the past has accepted hydraulic fracturing wastewater because the plant won’t categorically commit to never accepting fracking wastewater again. Here’s the very confusing setup from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Environmental groups have filed suit in federal court against the McKeesport Municipal Authority, alleging it is violating the U.S. Clean Water Act by accepting wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations.

According to the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh by Clean Water Action and Three Rivers Waterkeeper, the authority cannot adequately treat the 80,000 to 100,000 gallons a day of drilling wastewater it has been discharging into the Monongahela River, which is the source of drinking water for half a million people in Western Pennsylvania.

The environmental groups said the lawsuit, which seeks an injunction to immediately stop municipal treatment plants and other industrial treatment plants from accepting Marcellus wastewater, is the first federal case in the state challenging the practice, which has been allowed by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The lawsuit also asks the court to require the McKeesport Municipal Authority to apply for an amendment to its discharge permit and get state approval before it accepts any drilling wastewater.

Myron Arnowitt, state director for Clean Water Action, said the DEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should issue orders to stop any treatment plant not equipped to meet the new treatment rules from accepting shale gas drilling wastewater, which contains high concentrations of dissolved solids, heavy metals and chlorides.

"The McKeesport facility is incapable of removing hazardous chemicals present in Marcellus Shale wastewater, yet it pours into the Monongahela just miles upstream from Penn-American and West View drinking water intakes," said Ned Mulcahy, executive director for Three Rivers Waterkeeper. "Sadly, the Pennsylvania DEP and the U.S. EPA have all refused to take action to stop this dangerous practice."*

If you read that opening and have tracked this issue at all, you do a double take. What?! There’s tens of thousands of gallons of fracking wastewater still being treated at a municipal facility and discharged into waterways?! The PA DEP stopped that back in April, right? Yes they did.

DEP Secretary Michael Krancer, instead of launching lawsuits that would take years to resolve, “encouraged” all municipal sewage treatment plants that were at that time still accepting fracking wastewater to “voluntarily” stop the practice, or else (see MDN coverage here). In April, they stopped—all of them—including McKeesport. You don’t get that bit of detail in the article until the very end:

But the McKeesport Municipal Authority, which began accepting and discharging drilling wastewater in 2008 but has not done so since mid-April, has not taken any formal action.

"I doubt if we will start again, but if we did, we have a grandfathered right to accept the wastewater, and the authority did not want to give that right up," said Joe Rost, authority executive director. "We want to keep that option open because things may change."

Mr. Rost said the wastewater was coming from Chesapeake Energy Corp. and CNX Gas Corp., a subsidiary of Consol Energy, but that waste stream has "dried up" because the companies are recycling their wastewater or shipping it to Ohio for disposal.*

So there is the bone of contention. Although McKeesport is NOT currently accepting fracking wastewater as the lawsuit and statements by Messrs. Arnowitt and Mulcahy imply, because McKeesport has not taken “formal action” to declare they will never, ever accept fracking wastewater again, that’s what this lawsuit is about. To force them into doing just that.

Thing is, Krancer and the DEP have already made it abundantly clear that these facilities, unless upgraded with new technology, will not be allowed to accept fracking wastewater. Krancer (previously a lawyer and a judge with the PA Environmental Hearing Board) found a better way of accomplishing what everyone wanted in the first place—without the time and expense of litigation. It seems to MDN this new lawsuit by Clean Water Action and Three Rivers Waterkeeper is frivolous and counterproductive.

*Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Jul 20, 2011) – Lawsuit challenges McKeesport’s treatment of shale wastewater