Sustained Outrage

Pa. going over W.Va.’s head on Mon River pollution


Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

Our neighbors to the north are apparently growing tired of West Virginia’s inaction — or action through only baby steps — to deal with the potential water pollution problems from disposal of “pit fluids” from large-scale oil and gas drilling.

According to a story over the weekend by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Don Hopey,  Pennsylvania authorities have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and set tougher pollution limits for Monongahela River.

Pennsylvania DEP Secretary John Hanger told Hopey that his state has issued orders limiting the discharges of total dissolved solids, or TDS, in the Mon — and, perhaps more importantly, has started the lengthy process of drafting new regulatory controls. But, Hanger said, West Virginia hasn’t done likewise. Hanger told Hopey:

We’re not satisfied with the response we’ve received from West Virginia and are engaging the EPA. Because at the end of the day, without federal involvement, we may not get the kind of cooperation needed to solve this problem. I personally have concerns that the posture of West Virginia on this matter is not aggressive enough.

In his article, Hopey explained some background of this Pa-W.Va. dispute:

Sources of dissolved solids include sewage treatment plants, power plant scrubber and coolant water, storm water runoff, abandoned mine drainage, a host of industrial activities and wastewater from oil and gas drilling, especially the millions of gallons produced by deep wells tapping into the Marcellus shale gas bed.

For the past year, Pennsylvania has restricted the amount of wastewater from those deep gas drilling operations that sewage treatment plants can accept to no more than 1 percent of their total water discharges into the river.

West Virginia has only recently urged treatment facilities to limit intake of well waste water. And officials there said the sewage treatment plant in Clarksburg, the only such facility in the state that was permitted to accept well drilling waste water, stopped last month.

Scott Mandirola, director of the WVDEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management, told Hopey that his agency would “cooperate fully” with Pennsylvania and the EPA to develop a pollution reduction plan for the Mon.

But as I reported in May, setting the needed pollution limits is not a major priority for WVDEP.  In a presentation during a public water quality standards meeting, DEP assistant water director Pat Campbell noted that surrounding states have such standards, but West Virginia is only just beginning to study whether it should adopt one:

This is the beginning of the state considering whether to have a TDS critiera and what that number should be.