Sustained Outrage

Gas drilling damage III — DEP’s plan?

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Thickness map of the Marcellus Shale. Modified after: United States Geological Survey, Open-File Report 2006-1237, Assessment of Appalachian Basin oil and gas resources: Devonian Shale-Middle and Upper Paleozoic Total Petroleum System, by Robert Milici and Christopher Swezey. First published at http://geology.com/articles/marcellus-shale.shtml.

The state Department of Environmental Protection just announced its plan for dealing with the potentially huge water pollution problems of drilling for oil and gas in the Marcellus Shale formation. We previously discussed this problem, which is of growing concern to environmentalists, in Gas drilling damage II.

A DEP press release is here and a copy of the plan — agency officials call it “Industry Guidance” is posted here.

Among other things, the guidance changes the oil and gas industry’s permit applications to require drillers to provide DEP with information about disposal methods if operations will use or dispose of more than 5,000 barrels of pit fluids.

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A drilling rig used to bore thousands of feet into the earth to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shales deep underground is seen on the hill above the pond on John Dunn’s farm in Houston, Pa., in October.  Photo by Keith Srakocic/Associated Press.

In describing concerns about pit fluids, DEP says:

Perhaps the greatest challenge regarding these operations is the disposal of the drilling or frac fluids. The operator must thoroughly plan for this situation. Once wells are drilled and completed, thousands of barrels of this fluid may need proper treatment and disposal. Currently there are limited options, all of which may involve some time constraints for authorization or implementation.

As we discussed before, drilling in the Marcellus Shale creates huge amounts of toxic waste water.  This issue really came to the forefront last year, when some of this nasty stuff that was taken to small community sewage treatment plants made its way into the Monongehala River.

Probably the best journalism we’ve seen about this is from Abrahm Lustgarten at ProPublica.

“New advancements in drilling technology have created increased interest in exploring the Marcellus Shale formation in New York, Pennsylvania, and recently in West Virginia,” said DEP Secretary Randy Huffman. “What we are concerned about is the increase in the amount of water used and the disposal of wastewater that results from using these new drilling techniques.”

DEP officials advise that “land application” of drill fluids is an option only for smaller operations. The best option, DEP said, may be underground injection, but currently the state has only two such wells available.

And the DEP guidelines say this about  using sewage treatment plants for disposal of frac fluids:

Some operators may consider transporting frac fluids to local, publicly owned treatment works (POTWs). The OOG and the DWWM must be notified, via the application addendum, if this is an option being considered for disposal. The DWWM will be in contact with the POTW to ensure that the treatment facility can handle the flow and the quality of the waste. If the facility does not already have a permit for pretreatment, an NPDES permit modification and treatment requirements will need to be considered before approval of the discharge to the facility is allowed. Federal regulations prohibit on-site treatment and disposal of the frac fluid to a nearby receiving stream.

Transport and disposal at a centralized treatment facility can be an option. Currently there are no centralized treatment facilities available. However, the DWWM has received several inquiries regarding such disposal and is currently considering them.

DEP said it would accept public comments on this guidance through April 17. But we’ d like to see some discussion about it here on Sustained Outrage, so submit a comment below if you have thoughts.