EPA’s waste water treatment rule splits environmentalists, industry

  • Jon Hurdle
Waste Treatment Corporation in Warren, Pa.  faces legal action from regulators and an environmental group over discharges to the Allegheny River.

Courtesy of Clean Water Action

Waste Treatment Corporation in Warren, Pa. faced legal action from regulators over discharges to the Allegheny River in 2012.

The U.S. EPA’s plan to prevent municipal water treatment plants from accepting fracking waste is being hailed by supporters as a necessary safeguard against the contamination of public water supplies, and attacked by the petroleum industry as a short-sighted measure that ignores its long-term needs and violates the Clean Water Act.

As the public-comment period on the agency’s proposed Effluent Limitations Rule comes to an end on July 17, environmentalists and a Pennsylvania Congressman said any treatment of fracking waste by sewage plants would risk toxic materials getting into waterways if it was allowed to take place.

But the Independent Petroleum Association of America argued that the EPA had overstepped its bounds by proposing an outright ban on the practice rather than requiring that municipal treatment plants use technology to remove contaminants from fracking waste water.

Although the natural gas industry does not currently send fracking waste to municipal plants, it has done so in the past, and some plants continue to receive such requests from gas companies, so the rule is designed to prevent any resumption of that practice, the EPA said when publishing the rule in March.

The agency said the rule would remove regulatory uncertainty, and ease the pressure on local plants to respond to any such requests.

During a conference call with reporters, backers of the new rule said public health would be threatened by any attempt to process fracking waste at public treatment plants, which are not equipped to remove the toxic substances used in, and produced by, unconventional gas drilling, and may end up returning contaminated water into local rivers and streams.

U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat from Pennsylvania’s 17th District, said any attempt to treat frack waste at public plants could result in other toxins being created.

For example, bromide from fracking operations combined with the chlorine commonly used in treatment plants can produce a chemical that has been linked to bladder cancer, miscarriages and still births, he said.

A study published last fall in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, showed that treated frack water, when released into waterways can travel to drinking water intakes and end up producing dangerous toxins. The concentrations of salty brine, which flows up from deep underground once a well is fracked, are difficult to remove from the wastewater without the aid of an expensive technique called reverse osmosis or a cheaper method known as thermal distillation. If the wastewater is treated conventionally, which does not remove the bromides, chlorides or iodides, then it can be combined with chlorine at a drinking water facility, and create carcinogens such as bromines and iodines.

Even though the industry now finds other ways to treat its waste, federal regulations do not currently require it to do so, supporters of the rule said.

“Under current rules, oil and gas companies are permitted to send millions of gallons of toxic waste water to sewage treatment plants,” Cartwright said.

He said the practice stopped in Pennsylvania – where 15 facilities previously accepted fracking waste — after an agreement between the administration of former Gov. Tom Corbett and the gas industry, and the EPA seeks to apply the same principle with the new rule.

“This proposed rule will expand this commonsense solution nationwide,” he said.

Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the IPAA, argued that the Clean Water Act, on which the new rule is based, requires a technological solution to removing contaminants, rather than the prohibition that the EPA has proposed.

“The agency really didn’t do the job that it was assigned to do,” Fuller told StateImpact. “The Clean Water Act says that if you are going to move into this arena of setting up an effluent limitations guideline, it needs to be using what’s called best available technology economically achievable.”

Fuller said the zero-discharge requirement in the rule is based on the availability of underground injection, recycling and reuse of fracking waste, and assumes that those sources will meet the industry’s needs in the long term.

Asked whether the appropriate technologies exist to effectively treat fracking waste, Fuller said that’s up to the EPA to specify but he noted that there are some techniques that the industry already uses to treat produced water so that it can be reused for fracking.

He said the EPA’s plan seems to assume that existing techniques will always meet industry needs.

“The agency shouldn’t presume the availability of recycling and underground injection control on a national scale when it’s evaluating the technological mandates of the Clean Water Act,” Fuller said.

Although the industry currently doesn’t use public water-treatment plants, it would like the option of doing so in future, Fuller said.

“We think that’s what the law requires, for the agency to create that option if they are going to set an effluent limitation guideline under the Clean Water Act,” he said. “We think that would be appropriate because we don’t know what the future holds.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, argued that municipal plants are not equipped to handle toxic drilling waste.

Fracking’s highly toxic, radioactive waste water shouldn’t be treated at facilities that can’t handle its hazards,” said Rachel Richardson, director of the stop-drilling program for Environment America, a federation of state-based advocacy groups, during the conference call.

Adam Garber, field director for PennEnvironment, said the industry’s agreement not to send its waste to municipal plants appears to have succeeded in Pennsylvania but it was not backed up by legislative or regulatory action, and so there is still a need for the new EPA regulation.

“We don’t know of this happening in Pennsylvania but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen if there’s no regulation on the books,” Garber said.

He also defended the EPA’s move as an attempt to anticipate future problems rather than react to them once they have arisen. “This is how the world should work, to identify potential problems and deal with them before they arise,” he said.

Without the rule, fracking waste could get into public water supplies via public treatment plants; disrupt biological processes used during regular treatment; accumulate in biosolids, limiting their use, and aid the formation of harmful byproducts used in the disinfection process, the EPA said.

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