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Senate Committee Told Drilling Wastewater Recycling Becoming More Effective

Representatives of both the natural gas drilling industry and the Department of Environmental Protection told the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee this week much more of the 3.4 million gallons of water used to drill and develop each Marcellus Shale well is being recycled by operators.

On the other hand, representatives of several groups and two Committee members expressed concern about whether DEP had enough staff to adequately handle both gas well permitting and enforcement and wastewater issues.

After the Senate hearing, Gov. Rendell announced he ordered DEP to hire 68 more staff to deal with Marcellus Shale issues. (see separate story)

The number of Marcellus Shale gas well applications is predicted to more than double this year in Pennsylvania to 5,200 from the 1,984 issued last year.

Steve Rhoads, East Resources, Inc. and the PA Marcellus Shale Coalition, said of the 3.4 million gallons of water used to develop and frack each Marcellus Shale well, about 25 percent (875,000 gallons) returns to the surface on average to be treated and properly disposed of.DEP differed somewhat with the industry on the amount of flow-back water saying up to 40 percent was returned on average, but said they had heard reports that up to 50 percent of operators are reusing at least a portion of their wastewater with some reusing nearly 100 percent.

As a result of concerns with Total Dissolved Solids (primarily chlorides), drilling companies are moving to recycle more and more of their drilling wastewater Rhoads said. Some companies are reportedly are recycling as much as 90 to 95 percent of the drilling/frack water by treating it and taking it to the next drilling site.

Rhoads noted TDSs typically pass through most wastewater plants and the industry relies on the assimilation capacity of streams to deal with the remaining wastewater.

Operators are also exploring the use of deep injection wells to dispose of the wastewater which are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Pennsylvania.

Rhoads said the industry opposes the TDS regulations recently proposed by DEP saying a better approach would be to take a watershed view of the TDS problem through a Total Maximum Daily Load plan developed with the help of a local stakeholders group. He also said a comprehensive water monitoring network should be set up to help define and monitor the problem.

Sen. Lisa Baker (R-Luzerne) asked whether the provision of the state Oil and Gas Act requiring well water sampling and a presumption of a well causing problems within 1,000 feet of a gas well should be strengthened.

Rhoads said both DEP and EPA have told the industry there has not been a complaint about water contamination as a result of gas well fracking in Pennsylvania, noting the industry has over 60 years of experience with the technique.

He did say there have been instances where wells were improperly constructed that resulted in the migration of natural gas into water supplies causing problems for property owners.Sen.

Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester) asked whether the drilling industry would back up its claims about the lack of impact on water wells with a guarantee program, like the Chester County Landfill has, to guarantee the value of properties within a mile of a well

Rhoads said he did not think a guarantee was needed and the industry would stand behind its responsibilities to follow the rules on well drilling.

DEP Knits Together Regulatory Program

John Hines, Deputy Secretary for Water Management at DEP, provided the Committee with an overview of wastewater issue and DEP's regulatory programs. He was assisted by Scott Perry, Director of the Bureau of Oil and Gas Management, and Dana Aunkst, Director of the Bureau of Water Standards and Facility Regulation.

First he said he wanted to clear up confusion over the contents of fracking fluids used in the gas well development process. He said the chemicals used in the fracking fluids have been posted on the DEP Marcellus Shale webpage for all to see, although the precise proportion of the chemicals are trade secrets.

Hines said the agency is working with a subcommittee of the Water Resources Advisory Committee to develop new standards for Total Dissolved Solids discharges because many streams and rivers have very little capacity to assimilate additional TDSs.

He noted "the capacity to treat the expected levels of wastewater (from drilling operations) is not yet available. Even with reuse and recycling, we must still find a solution for the flow-back and production fluids that cannot be reused... the department fully anticipates the need for increased treatment capacity, even at the reduced flow-back estimates."

He said TDSs come from a variety of sources including acid mine drainage, stormwater runoff, meat processing plants as well as drilling operations.

Hines said the department is also working to improve natural gas well construction standards to protect the public from gas migration.

"The regulations and protections I've described above are important to the protection of our natural resources," said Hines. "However, they mean very little if the department does not have the staff necessary to inspect well sites and oversee the environmentally protective development of this resource."

Hines said DEP was able to add 37 new staff during 2009 funded by increases in drilling permit fees for inspection and drilling permit review. Fee increases will also be proposed shortly to help fund wastewater treatment and water quality permit reviews and enforcement.

Sen. Baker said there is a significant concern in her area that there is no local DEP presence in Wilkes-Barre covering gas well drilling saying the staff added in Williamsport is good, but that's a one or two hour ride from where drilling is occurring in her district. (After Gov. Rendell ordered DEP to hire 68 more staff to deal with Marcellus Shale issues, DEP Secretary John Hanger was quoted as saying some of those staff will be located in Wilkes-Barre.)

Sen. Baker also asked DEP to look at certifying the operators of drilling wastewater treatment plants like they are for municipal wastewater plants.

Sen. Ted Erickson (R-Delaware) said he was concerned about whether DEP had the capacity to do the permit reviews and the enforcement needed to properly oversee thousands of new natural gas wells. He also said there are issues of consistency of enforcement and permitting between regions.

Sen. Elder Vogel (R-Beaver) said the capacity of streams and rivers to absorb additional TDSs is not only a problem for an expanding oil and gas industry, it was also a concern for the coal mining industry and how it is going to expand.

Hines said the TDS stakeholder group was coming up with some interesting suggestions for dealing with these issues and would be reporting its results in the next few months.

DEP Shuts Down Operator Certification

Peter Slack, PA Municipal Authorities Association, said his group has a concern about whether DEP has the capacity to oversee the drilling and wastewater issues. He noted DEP just suspended major parts of the wastewater plant operator certification program because of recent budget cuts.

In response, Sen. Mary Jo White said the new gas well drilling application fees will bring the agency significant new resources, adding, "We want to be sure budget constraints do not result in under enforcement of regulations."

Tougher Regulations

Erika Staaf, Clean Water Advocate with PennEnvironment, said DEP's wastewater program should be beefed up to include a cradle to grave water monitoring system from the time water is withdrawn for use by a driller to when it is ultimately disposed of.

She also said PennEnvironment encourages wastewater reuse to the maximum extent and setting tougher standards for the discharge of Total Dissolved Solids.

New Technology

David Kohl, CWM Environmental, previewed wastewater treatment technology his company has produced to reduce the wastewater used in well development by 85 percent.

Paul Hart, President of Hart Resource Technologies, Inc. & Pennsylvania Brine, outlined how three drilling wastewater plants his company operators can be part of the solution for wastewater issues.

Additional written comments were submitted to the Committee by: Aqua America, Chester Environmental Partnership, Bartramian Audubon Society, Greater Wyoming Valley Audubon Society and The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.

“Today’s hearing provided an overview of the challenges faced from Marcellus Shale wastewater, and how we can best meet them,” said Sen. Mary Jo White. “This is a tremendous opportunity for Pennsylvania to produce not only an abundant supply of clean energy, but scores of well-paying jobs. At the same time, citizens have a right to expect that their natural resources and communities are being respected, that the gas is produced safely, and that our land and water resources are protected. I am confident that we can achieve the proper balance."

For copies of testimony and comments as well as a video of the entire hearing, visit the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee webpage. Also visit DEP's Marcellus Shale webpage for more background information.

Sen. Mary Jo White (R-Venango) serves as Majority Chair of the Committee and Sen. Ray Musto (D-Luzerne) serves as Minority Chair.

Related Stories
Governor: DEP Hire 68 More Staff To Deal With Marcellus Shale, Pass Severance Tax
EPA Announces Eyes On Drilling Tipline For Citizens


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