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Regulators outpaced by gas industry waste, report says

Worker breaks apart a brick of solid waste left over from a frack water recycling operation.

Worker breaks apart a brick of solid waste left over from a frack water recycling operation.

Pennsylvania’s environmental regulators are failing to keep pace with a growing volume of liquid and solid waste generated by the natural gas industry, and are allowing risky practices like open-air waste storage to continue, according to a study issued on Thursday.

The report by Earthworks, a nonprofit that highlights the adverse effects of mineral and energy development, says the volume of solid waste generated by companies active in the Marcellus and Utica Shales rose by 500 percent to some 5 million tons from 2011 to 2014, while that of liquid waste doubled to 130 million barrels.

Over the same period, the volume of waste reused or recycled grew by 47 percent, or less than half of the increase in waste generation overall, calling into question the claims of Marcellus operators that they are recycling more material from their operations, the report said.

It says companies that want to dump their drilling waste in landfills can get around a requirement to provide chemical and radiological analysis of the waste simply by stating that the waste hasn’t changed from the previous year.

And it accuses the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection of failing to ensure that all drilling wastewater is pretreated and analyzed before entering the wastewater stream.

As Pennsylvania’s gas industry has boomed, liquid wastes include those pumped into frack ponds, which have multiplied to 529 across Pennsylvania from 11 in 2005, according to a survey by the nonprofit SkyTruth. The survey, released in November 2014, said it was unclear how many of the ponds contained wastewater and how many held fresh water waiting to be used for fracking.

Earthworks also accused regulators of treating drill cuttings in the same way as regular garbage.

“The state’s solid waste management law specifically excludes drill cuttings, which makes it possible for operators to bury and leave them behind at well sites,” the report said.

Julie Lalo, a spokeswoman for the DEP, declined to comment on the report.

But the department recently announced new draft regulations which would ban the use of temporary waste storage pits and require drillers to either shut down or upgrade large centralized wastewater impoundment ponds within three years.

DEP’s Deputy Secretary for Oil and Gas, Scott Perry, told reporters in March that although Marcellus Shale drillers have, for the most part, stopped using the temporary waste pits, the impoundments continue to cause problems.

The before, during and after of the fracking fluid recycling process

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The before, during and after of the fracking fluid recycling process

The Earthworks report charges Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New York with failing to effectively regulate oil and gas waste despite being given that responsibility by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Thirty years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency exempted oil and gas waste from federal classification as hazardous, not because the waste isn’t hazardous, but because EPA determined that state oversight was adequate,” said Nadia Steinzor, the report’s lead author.

“Our analysis shows that states aren’t keeping track of this waste or disposing of it properly,” she said. “States must take realistic, concrete steps to better protect the public.”

Some operators say they recycle most or all of the millions of gallons of water used for fracking gas wells.

“Cabot began its water recycling program in 2011 and has since then treated nearly 100 percent of its fluids generated by operations in northeast Pennsylvania for reuse at other locations,” said George Stark, a spokesman for Cabot Oil & Gas, the biggest operator in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County.

The fluids were treated at a central treatment plant and well pads, and totaled 2.3 million barrels in 2014, Stark said.

Range Resources, the leading driller in southwest Pennsylvania, said it recycles all fluids generated during oil and gas operations, including that from conventional production not involving hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

DEP fined Range $4.1 million last September for leaking wastewater pits. It was the highest fine ever issued by DEP.

The violations include leaks of flowback fluid – the liquid that comes back out of a well after hydraulic fracturing – into soil and groundwater. The DEP said drinking water supplies were not affected. Residents living near Range’s Yeager impoundment in Amwell Township dispute that claim and have filed suit against the company.

Solid waste such as sand and drill cuttings is taken to an approved treatment plant, said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range.

“Range is committed to water recycling and reuse, which eliminates the need for disposal and reduces our already low relative water demands,” Pitzarella said in a statement.

Across the industry, the reuse and recycling rate dropped to 60 percent in 2014, according to the Earthworks report, and that may be explained by some companies having lower rates than Cabot and Range, Steinzor said.

“The fact remains that ever-growing volumes of waste are being produced at a faster rate than they are reused/recycled and the overall rate has dropped in the last few years,” she wrote in an email.

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