Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale Waste Records Are Incomplete

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Retention pond pumping in flowback water from a nearby well. The pipes leading away from the pond indicate the fluids are being reused at 3 neighboring wells. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

April 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) asked natural gas drilling companies to voluntarily stop taking Marcellus Shale drilling waste to sixteen water treatment plants in the state by May 19 due to high levels of bromide and other dissolved solids found in rivers where Marcellus wastewater had been discharged by treatment facilities who treated the waste according to DEP standards.

On May 12, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent Pennsylvania DEP Secretary Michael Krancer a letter asking “Pennsylvania to do a better job sampling, monitoring and regulating Marcellus Shale wastewater discharges near public drinking water sources.” Specific requests from the EPA included using “stricter public drinking water standards” and enacting “legally enforceable wastewater disposal regulations instead of relying on voluntary actions.”

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Brine Treatment Corporation in Franklin County, Pa. has not stopped receiving Marcellus waste altogether but is now limiting the amount of Marcellus wastewater it accepts, treats, and discharges into waterways. According to Paul Hart at Brine Treatment’s main office, the corporation’s three facilities are “seeing more than a 50 percent reduction” in Marcellus waste and are “discouraging companies from bringing heavier” wastewater, which has more bromides and other salts.

Two of Brine Treatment’s facilities discharge treated liquids into McKee Run and Black Lick Run, which run into the Allegheny River, while the third facility discharges directly into the Allegheny.

Hart also said that DEP has been monitoring Brine Treatment’s facilities almost daily as well as the river itself since spring flooding in the area has subsided.

Waste Treatment Corporation in Warren County, Pa. stopped accepting Marcellus wastewater altogether on May 19th after accepting over 130 truckloads that day, each carrying between four to six thousand gallons, according to Brian Nelson, who works at the facility.

Waste disposal records, called Form 26R, are required by DEP to be maintained by the generator, transporter and disposer. DEP displays waste disposal records online at the it’s Oil & Gas Reporting Website.

Some companies recycle wastewater. Triana Energy Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Eddy Grey wrote via email about the company’s drilling operations in Potter County, Pa. “We are fortunate that we have been able to recycle [in Potter],” said Grey.  “But that won’t be the case everywhere.”

Nancy Schneider, General Council for Penn Virginia Oil and Gas, which is also currently operating in Potter County, stated over the phone, “We don’t comment on where we put our flowback water [waste] or any other environmental question, but I will tell you that we are in compliance with every regulation PA has.”

Pumping unit for a retention pond on Gameland 59 in Potter County, PA. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

“Flowback” is hydraulic fracturing fluid that resurfaces once it’s been used at high pressure to fracture rock in the shale formation; it is also known as ‘brine.’ According to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) of Harrisburg, PA, about 10-20% of flowback (100,000 gallons or more) returns to the surface to be captured after fracking. It’s then contained and treated as residual waste.

The Public Herald contacted Jamie Legenos at DEP’s headquarters in Harrisburg to inquire about the total amount of waste materials generated from oil and gas drilling, and Marcellus drilling specifically, led to no easy answer. Legenos suggested adding up the totals from each county’s waste report on DEP’s production data web page.

Recycled flowback/brine water for natural gas hydraulic fracturing. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

However, such information is incomplete. Many data fields are blank. For example, one company operating in the state, Anadarko, has no final destination reported for over 1,000 tons of drill cuttings from a well in Centre County, permit number 027-21503.

Drill cuttings contain naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM). In May of this year, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation decided drill cuttings were safe for solid waste landfills in the state that take non-hazadarous materials.

But, DC Bureau reporter Peter Mantius reported in May that Dr. Conrad Volz, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health stated that Marcellus Shale drill cuttings are unique in that they contain “radium isotopes and thorium” and that levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) can vary from well to well. Conrad sites inefficient study and varied geology as reasons for “NORM sampling [to] be done for each batch of drill cuttings prior to transport and disposal, at least until a large-scale sampling program establishes the safety of such materials.”

Where are the public files?

According to David English, Chief of Compliance & Administration for DEP’s Bureau of Oil and Gas Management, “If the [data] field [in online reports] is empty – it was not reported to DEP. You are seeing exactly what was reported.”

A copy of each Form 26R waste disposal report is required by DEP to be maintained by the generator, transporter and disposer. English went on to say that regional DEP offices “may have” hard copies on file as well. Although, access to those files within the DEP can currently take up to 2 months; leaving reports about Marcellus Shale Waste empty until that time. The file review process becomes more prohibitive if questions arise during the review. New policy for DEP file reviews introduced in January 2011 requires a two week grace period, while reporters must state precisely which files they need prepared; leaving any new questions found during research to be subject to a second review.

According to a letter out of the DEP’s Rachel Carson Building in Harrisburg, responding to inquiries from Public Herald, DEP “does not have records” of the location and amount of flowback fluid disposal between 2010 and the present date of 2011. Nor does it have such records “in its custody or in its control” wrote Dawn Schaef, Agency Open Records Officer.

Ms. Schaef went on to note, “pursuant to the Office of Open Records Final Decision in Jenkins vs. Pennsylvania Department of State, OOR Dkt. AP 2009-065… It is not a denial of access when an agency does not possess records and [there is no] legal obligation to obtain them.”

“Spill!”

Retention pond (April 2011) pumping in flowback water from a nearby well. The pipes leading away from the pond indicate the fluids are being reused at 3 neighboring wells. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

In northern Pennsylvania, former employees of natural gas drilling companies have confidentially disclosed about illegal dumping in the middle of the night — including spills that are cleaned up and never reported. The Guardian in Williamsport, PA, anonymously published one such story by a former gas industry worker to protect the man from being sued.

Current and former employees of natural gas drilling companies and contractors have confirmed measures which prohibit them from talking about their job with non-employees, or face termination and litigation.

Recently, in north-central Pennsylvania, a truck driver was fired for calling in a spill over a radio. He is still afraid to reveal himself and what he knows of a well casing failure on PA State Game Lands that was investigated by the EPA and DEP earlier this month. The man fears being sued by his former employer, a contractor working for a natural gas drilling company.

Chemical Anonymity in the Elephant Room

Some of the chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing are now known. They weren’t at first, having been specifically exempt from federal environmental laws by  former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney’s in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Since then, lists of chemicals used for fracking have surfaced at the repeated request of private citizens, human rights groups, environmental organizations, and state and federal officials. The DEP’s list includes 73 chemicals, some known to be toxic and carcinogenic. A more recent list published by congressional Democrats lists over 750 chemicals, 29 of which are toxic and carcinogenic.

frac-list-6-30-2010-1

The gas industry claims on one hand that complete lists reveal proprietary trade secrets, and on the other that hydraulic fracturing fluids don’t make their way into groundwater and therefore pose no public health threat, regardless of what chemicals are used.

Currently, two bills sit in the United States Senate (S S587) and House (HR1084) that remove the exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act for fracking and call for the disclosure and monitoring of the chemicals used in the process.

Incomplete Information

Whether data about Marcellus Shale gas drilling waste products is missing or being withheld, there is no question that it is incomplete. With incomplete data and without full disclosure, the state of public safety must be taken at the word of industry and state and federal agencies.