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 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.)
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.”