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New York Times; Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All in Gas Process

March 2, 2011

The second article in a series examining the risks of natural gas drilling and efforts to regulate the industry - this time looking at wastewater recycling and disposal

Because of the geography in Pennsylvania, the natural gas industry cannot use its normal waste-water disposal method of injecting it into deep underground wells.  Instead, they are turning to recycling and reuse.  While this may sound good on the surface, the second in a series of New York Times articles written by Ian Urbina, ‘Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All in Gas Process‘, examines the many risks that recycling wastewater brings.

This article confronts industry denial head-on and confirms toxic radioactive waste is used as road salt and brine.  This mix goes straight into streams, rivers, aquifers, estuaries, and our drinking water.  It confirms that toxic radioactive waste is classified as “residual” not “hazardous” as a result of exemptions.  And it shows the rampant disregard for public health which results from the revolving door between government and industry, especially in Pennsylvania.

“Natural-gas companies recycled less than half of the wastewater they produced during the 18 months that ended in December, according to state records.  Some well operators are also selling their waste, rather than paying to dispose of it. Because it is so salty, they have found ready buyers in communities that spread it on roads for de-icing in the winter and for dust suppression in the summer. When ice melts or rain falls, the waste can run off roads and end up in the drinking supply.”

“The fate of more of the wastewater is unknown because of industry lobbying.  In 2009, when regulators tried to strengthen oversight of the industry’s methods for disposing of its waste, the Marcellus Shale Coalition staunchly opposed the effort.  After initially resisting, state officials agreed, adding that they would try to persuade the secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to agree.  Three of the top state officials in the meeting — K. Scott Roy, Barbara Sexton and J. Scott Roberts — have since left their posts for jobs in the natural-gas industry.”

“As gas producers have tried to find new ways to get rid of their waste, they have sought reassurances from state and federal regulators that the industry’s exemptions from federal laws on hazardous waste were broad enough to protect them.  In late 2009, for example, officials from an industry trade group, the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, wrote to regulators to confirm that drilling waste, regardless of how it was handled, would remain exempt from the federal law governing hazardous materials.”

“Wells also create waste that is not captured by recycling, because operators typically recycle only for the first several months after a well begins producing gas.  State regulators predict that the heaviest burdens are still to come. ‘The waste that flows back slowly and continuously over the 20- to 30-year life of each gas well could produce 27 tons of salt per year,’ Pennsylvania officials wrote.”

Read the first article in the New York Times series; ‘Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers‘.

The fate of more of the wastewater is unknown because of industry lobbying. In 2009, when regulators tried to strengthen oversight of the industry’s methods for disposing of its waste, the Marcellus Shale Coalition staunchly opposed the effort.
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