ALBANY -- One of the most contentious issues in the debate over shale gas drilling in New York's share of the Marcellus Shale region -- how to handle millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater -- remains unsettled. As the state ponders final regulations, environmental advocates say the issue is a glaring gap in preparations.
"What's disconcerting is that, while the state raises a number of possibilities, there isn't any real clear sense as to what the path forward is going to be," said Mark Brownstein, deputy director of the Environmental Defense Fund's national energy program. "On an issue as important as this, all of us who commented from the environmental community are looking for greater clarity."
There are three options for waste disposal in the state Department of Environmental Conservation's 1,500-page environmental review and proposed regulations for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of deep horizontal wells for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale:
Truck the millions of gallons of wastewater produced per well to a treatment facility and either discharge the treated water into a river or reuse it for another drilling project; -- Ship it out of state for deep-well injection disposal; or
Recycle it on-site for drilling multiple wells.
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The water that flows from active gas wells is contaminated with traces of chemicals used in drilling and fracking, which breaks up the shale to release natural gas. Many of the chemicals are known or probable carcinogens. The flowback water also brings up such naturally occurring contaminants as barium, strontium and radium.
In Pennsylvania, researchers have found increased levels of bromide in rivers used for gas wastewater disposal. Bromide, when combined with chlorine in municipal drinking water supplies, produces trihalomethanes, which have been linked in some studies to increased human cancer rates after years of exposure.
Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens says permit applications must include details about how wastewater will be handled. It's up to the drillers to determine what method to use.
"All of those options have impacts; none of them is particularly benign," said Kate Sinding, a staffer of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "What's missing in the DEC review is, what's the impact of each available technology? They shouldn't be deciding on treatment options when issuing permits until they have the science on the impact of each option."
NRDC and other environmental groups support legislation that would close a loophole exempting oil and gas waste from the hazardous waste law that applies to other industries. The bill was passed Feb. 13 by the Assembly but a companion bill in the Senate remains in committee.
Under a voluntary moratorium last May, Pennsylvania moved to stop municipal wastewater treatment plants from taking Marcellus waste because excessive salt concentrations were found downstream in rivers. The wastewater has more than 30 times as much salt as seawater.