Friday, March 29, 2013

Pa. eases water standard update after industry complaint Corbett’s DEP withdraws 4 pollutants from regulatory plan

In the face of industry opposition, Pennsylvania officials have backed away from proposed standards that would limit certain kinds pollution that drilling and fracking operators can discharge into the Commonwealth’s waters.

Specifically, the agency has removed proposed standards for molybdenum, sulfates, chlorides, and 1-4 dioxane, because the restrictions “raised the concern of the business community,” according to a recent DEP report.  The constituents were originally included in proposed updates to Chapter 93, which regulates water quality under the Clean Streams Law. The revised proposal is now pending approval by the Department of Environmental Protection’s Environmental Quality Board.

The most acutely toxic of the chemicals excluded from the proposed standards is 1-4 dioxane, a manufacturing solvent that can cause illnesses ranging from cancer to organ failure, and for which there is no current water quality standard in Pennsylvania.  Chlorides and sulfates, also eliminated from the revised regs, are less acutely toxic than dioxane but can cause ecological and health problems, especially when discharged in quantity over time in water bodies already stressed by high levels. Chlorides and sulfates are principal waste components of the shale gas and mining industries. They are measured as Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), or, more simply, things that dissolve in water. Water with high TDS, often deceptively clear, can wreak havoc on fresh water systems. Chlorides can also be a flag for other possible pollution that comes deep in the ground with flowback, including undisclosed mixtures of chemical solutions and naturally occurring metals and hydrocarbons that can foul fresh water.

Oil and gas drilling and fracking operators were joined by representatives from the electric generation, coal, steel, pharmaceuticals and metallurgy interests in opposing the original Chapter 93 updates drafted by regulatory officials using current information from the field and national guidelines. Trade associations maintained the proposed restrictions on chlorides and other chemicals “were not rooted in clear scientific evidence and failed to take the economic impact of the regulated community into account,” according to a DEP report.

Dunkard Creek fish kill
The proposal to develop standards for chlorides and the other constituents was due partly to problems that have cropped up since shale gas development took off in Pennsylvania five years ago. TDS levels spiked in the Monongahela and Allegheny river systems, when drilling waste was commonly disposed in treatment plants that were unequipped to handle it. In October, 2009, TDS levels in the Monongahela exceeded water quality standards at all of the 17 Potable Water Supply (PWS) intakes from the border with West Virginia to Pittsburgh, prompting an advisory to use bottled water that affected 325,000 people. That same year, Dunkard Creek, one of the most prolific freshwater sport fisheries in the region and a tributary to the Mon, was wiped out by TDS pollution. The 43 mile creek along Pennsylvania’s rural border with West Virginia was teeming with more than 161 aquatic species ranging from freshwater mussels to 3-foot muskellunge. By September, 2009, almost everything in Dunkard Creek was dead, with the exception of an invasive microscopic alga—common in Texas estuaries—that had somehow migrated into the creek and thrived in its suddenly brackish water. The disaster was attributed to multiple factors, including discharges from mining operations, water draw downs by the drilling industry which needed large quantities of fresh water to support fracking operations, illegal dumping, and the introduction of invasive algae.

The story of Dunkard Creek and the Mon (chronicled in Under the Surface) represents a broader concern about the health of Pennsylvania waterways that lead to revisions in the Pa. Clean Streams law under governor Ed Rendell and his DEP secretary John Hanger in 2010. The Chapter 95 revision (not to be confused with the Chapter 93 revisions now on the table) restricts new treatment plants from accepting high TDS waste from drill operators, although it allows the practice to continue at old plants. Environmental watchdog groups are concerned about  plants that continue to discharge high levels of chlorides into the watershed, including Waste Treatment Corp., in Warren County, Hart Resources Technologies, in Indiana County, and two plants run by Pa. Brine, one in Venango County and one in Indiana County. The plants are discharging effluent with chloride concentrations more than two times greater than seawater, according to Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director with Clean Water Action.

A team of academicians with Resources for the Future lead by Sheila M. Olmstead examined the chloride issue in Pennsylvania waterways, with results published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences early this year.  The team found (among other things) that chloride levels tended to be high downstream from treatment plants, and “surface water disposal of treated waste from shale gas wells represents a potentially important water quality burden.” In addition to chloride, “many other wastewater constituents could potentially reach surface water, although available data on their concentrations is limited.” (Michael Levi, who writes for the Council on Foreign Relation's Energy Security and Climate blog, takes a broader look at the study here.)

Michael Krancer
The Chapter 93 revisions now under consideration would have provided much broader limits on untreated disposal of chlorides. The removal of the proposed standards for chloride and other pollution is consistent with the platform of Governor Tom Corbett, Rendell’s successor, who campaigned openly to oppose impediments to the industry’s expansion in Pennsylvania. The decision to ease the Chapter 93 rules came under Corbett’s DEP chief, Michael Krancer, a former and future industry attorney. This month, Krancer left the DEP to rejoin Blank Rome, effective April 15, where he will chair the energy, petrochemical, and natural resources practice. The firm describes itself as “uniquely positioned to counsel and represent shale oil and gas exploration, production, and mid-stream companies regarding all of their business needs.” During his time as DEP secretary, Krancer did little to dispel the notion held by his critics that he was too accommodating to drilling interests.

The proposal to include and then withdraw the four pollutants are part of a larger package of water standards under consideration with Chapter 93, which is periodically updated to reflect technological and cultural changes along with evolving risks to water sheds.

Arnowitt said he believes there is a chance that the federal EPA may encourage DEP to include the standards for the pollutants in its final rule. “We suspect that the DEP and the EPA are having conversations about what the finished version is going to look like,” he said. “It’s possible the DEP will change course (due to) the fact that they have not officially put it forward.”


  1. 1,4-dioxane seems to be an emulsifying agent and fairly ubiquitous in commercial and industrial use these days. The purpose of an emulsifier is to bring a hydrophobic chemical (doesn't to be dissolved in water) into an aqueous(water) solution or carrying fluid. So let's say one wants to suspend or dissolve chemicals into an aqueous solution above the equilibrium solubility - then one would need an emulsifying agent - especially if one needs to inject such a fluid into something recalcitrant - like a rock for instance.

    Slightly off topic of this post - but germane to the topic of hydraulic fracturing - are two documents for anyone interested in the goofiness of environmental science. One is the USEPA work plan for evaluating fracking (2011) and the other a report by Battelle Memorial Institute (2012) to evaluate USEPA's work plan as requested by API et al. Here's my brief comment on the Battelle report: when a report prefaces what s report is not about for several pages it becomes difficult to understand what the report IS about. Or Battelle seemed glad initially to take the contract from API, but realized later into the study how political dicey things really are in the shale gas world. Probably this discovery was made after the first client review draft.

    EPA's Work Plan

    Battelle's Review of the EPA's Work Plan - requested by API et al

    1. Opps. I pasted the wrong link in the comment above. Here's the Battelle report:

    2. Thanks for passing this along, Michael. Taken collectively, the Battelle review of the EPA study is another great example how scientific interpretation is seldom if ever unattached to particular interests.