DRBC’s new rule would protect against frack-waste contamination, officials say

  • Jon Hurdle
The Delaware River basin: Officials say proposed new rules would strengthen protections against contamination from fracking waste water brought into the basin.

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

The Delaware River basin: Officials say proposed new rules would strengthen protections against contamination from any fracking waste water brought into the basin.

Current and former officials at the Delaware River Basin Commission say proposed new rules on the in-basin treatment of waste water from fracking strengthen protections against any frack-related contamination.

The rule, published on Nov. 30, would allow the importation and treatment of waste water from fracking operations outside the basin – under strict conditions — even though the rule proposes banning fracking itself.

The waste-water provision, together with a plan to allow the export of water for fracking elsewhere, prompted protests from environmentalists who argue that the new rule, if approved, represents the loosening of an existing ban on frack-waste treatment, and would leave the basin exposed to contamination from fracking.

But there is actually no current prohibition on frack waste treatment and so the new rule represents a significant tightening of the basin’s protections, said Clarke Rupert, a spokesman for the DRBC, which regulates water quality and supply for the basin states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware, plus the federal government.

“The possibility that waste water from hydraulic fracturing could be imported exists now,” Rupert said. “Contrary to what some believe, there is no current moratorium or de facto moratorium on disposal of waste water from hydraulic fracturing. The effect in our opinion would be to provide numerous protections and requirements that do not presently exist.”

Among the proposed new protections is a requirement that waste water operators would need DRBC approval to bring in any amount of frack waste for treatment, a stricter requirement than the current rule requiring commission approval for 50,000 gallons or more, Rupert said.

The new rule says it is the commission’s policy to “discourage” importation of fracking waste water into the basin but that an operator who wants to do so must obtain DRBC approval for any amount of waste.

Any applicants would be subject to effluent limits and a public hearing, and would be required to submit a “treatability study” which identified pollutants of concern, analyzed the toxicity of the waste, and examined the technologies that would be used for treatment.

If all of those requirements were met, the commission believes the measures would protect the waters of the basin, and are consistent with the proposed ban on fracking itself, Rupert said.

But Tracy Carluccio of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network said allowing treatment of frack waste would expose the basin’s waters to contamination, and is inconsistent with the proposed ban on fracking itself which the commission said would expose waters to “significant, immediate, and long-term risks.”

“For the DRBC to consider importing frack waste water is so illogical, based on their proposal to ban fracking in the watershed,” Carluccio said. “Why would they ever allow frack waste water to come in because a lot of the impacts they cite as the reason to ban fracking is related to the waste?”

The challenges of treating frack waste include what to do with the naturally occurring radioactive material that is produced by fracking deep underground, and which most waste water treatment plants are not equipped to deal with, she said.

“It’s no problem to the environment or human health when it’s a mile beneath our feet, but when you bring it to the surface, it’s a health hazard, and it’s a toxic material that has to be disposed of very carefully,” Carluccio said.

Former DRBC executive director Carol Collier argued that there is little realistic prospect of frack waste being brought into the basin because of the onerous requirements that would be placed on any applicants under the new rule.

Even though treatment of frack waste is theoretically possible under the DRBC’s current regulations, they contain a series of safeguards against waste water contamination, and those would be strengthened by the new rule, she said.

“With the level of hoops that somebody would have to jump through to get an approval to bring waste water into the basin, I think it would be highly unlikely and it would have very, very stringent requirements on the docket if they did make it through,” Collier said.

Collier, now a senior adviser on watershed management at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, said critics of the new rule have misunderstood an existing rule that bans the treatment of frack waste but also allows it to happen if certain conditions are met.

“If you only read the first part, it says that it’s banned, but it’s only banned until they come back and ask for a renewal and re-evaluation,” she said. “The folks out there saying it’s weakening the rules and that there’s a ban in place now are wrong.”

Other safeguards exist within the new rule’s proposals on the Delaware River’s “special protection waters,” the non-tidal section of the river above Trenton, where the DRBC requires no measurable change in existing water-quality standards, Collier said.

That means that any treatment firm would have to identify current levels of frack-related chemicals such as benzene and chlorides in the river now, and then ensure that they are not exceeded by any discharge of treated frack waste.

“There are not high levels of those contaminants in the non-tidal river so that limit is going to be very very low or non-detectable, and it says you can’t go above it,” she said.

Some critics of the DRBC say it has no legal authority to propose a fracking ban in the first place, and that there is no need to impose restrictions on waste water treatment.

“Why would you think water would be contaminated? There has been drilling across the entire state of Pennsylvania with virtually no impact on the water,” said Bob Rutledge, a member of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, a Wayne County group which unsuccessfully sued DRBC, saying it lacked the authority to ban fracking in the basin.

Rutledge, who owns 300 acres in Damascus Township, dismissed arguments that there are not commercial quantities of gas in the Delaware River basin even though two companies, Hess and Newfield Appalachia, terminated leases there in 2013.

“They were never allowed to frack a well here to find out whether the gas is producible or not,” Rutledge said.

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