EPA Releases Plans for Natural Gas Wastewater Discharges

Nov. 1, 2011
“We can protect the health of American families and communities at the same time we ensure access to all of the important resources ...

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced its plan to assess how the hydraulic fracturing of underground formations may impact drinking water. And it set a schedule to develop standards for water produced along with natural gas from coalbed and shale formations.

Congress had mandated EPA’s study of hydraulic fracturing. This year the agency held a series of public meetings to receive input from interested parties. Also, the independent Science Advisory Board reviewed EPA’s scientific approach.

EPA will release its initial research results and study findings next year and deliver its final report in 2014.

The study will examine the full cycle of water in hydraulic fracturing, from the acquisition of the water, through the mixing of chemicals and actual fracturing, to the post-fracturing stage, including its ultimate treatment and disposal. Earlier this year, EPA selected locations for five retrospective and two prospective case studies.

The American Water Works Association applauded the study but Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said EPA may be “cutting corners.”

“Even before the study was finalized, EPA was already collecting data samples at undisclosed fracking sites across the country. EPA should not have begun conducting the study without ensuring that the process is fully transparent, and in accordance with sound science,” he said.

Separately, EPA will develop the first national standards for wastewater produced along with natural gas. It said any water pretreatment standards would be based on economically achievable technologies.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, “We can protect the health of American families and communities at the same time we ensure access to all of the important resources that make up our energy economy.”

The agency noted that technological improvements have boosted shale gas production from a negligible amount a few years ago to almost 15% of U.S. gas output, a percentage that is expected to triple in coming decades.

EPA said wastewater from shale gas extraction is prohibited from being directly discharged to surface waters. While some of the wastewater from shale gas extraction is reused or re-injected, a significant amount still requires disposal. As a result, some shale gas wastewater is transported to treatment plants, many of which are not properly equipped to treat this type of wastewater.

The agency said coalbed methane wastewater is not federally regulated, but it will set national standards that individual states can follow.

EPA said sampling data have documented that elevated levels of inadequately treated natural gas wastewater pollutants are entering surface waters. It plans to propose a rule for coalbed methane in 2013 and one for shale gas in 2014.

Coal Residuals Act

To the dismay of environmental groups, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, which authorizes power generators to build new coal ash sites.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said, “Coal ash is a dangerous by-product of burning coal, and contains mercury, arsenic, lead and other life-threatening pollutants that leach into the water supply.

“Unbelievably, toxic coal ash currently has no federal safeguards. This anti-clean water bill would perpetuate the status quo by putting a scheme in place that is less protective than standards for disposing of household garbage.”

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) said the Safe Drinking Water Act standard for arsenic, a potent carcinogen, is 10 micrograms per liter while the arsenic standard in the coal ash bill is based on a weaker 50 microgram/liter standard that no longer is in effect.

EIP said although the bill would require ash dumps cleanups in some cases, it also gave states the authority to waive cleanups if they determined that the actions were unnecessary.

The bill now goes to the Democratic-controlled Senate, which typically takes a tougher line on environmental issues.

In other Washington news:

-- EPA and Massachusetts have completed a two-year program with ExxonMobil Corp. to improve stormwater management at the latter’s Everett, Mass., terminal and reduce pollution runoff into the Mystic and Island End Rivers.

-- A coalition of water and environmental groups has urged the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees to use the next omnibus farm bill to encourage agricultural practices to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into rivers.

-- The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has approved a bill setting a national standard for the treatment of vessel ballast water that conforms to the International Maritime Organization standard. Ship owners would have to install treatment technology certified to meet the new standard.

-- EPA said irrigation controllers now can qualify for its WaterSense label. It said widespread use of the controllers to operate sprinkler systems could save 110 billion gallons of water and $410 million per year on utility bills.

-- The agency said Florida’s proposed rule establishing numeric criteria for state waters is consistent with the Clean Water Act. Goal of the rule is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution of inland and estuarine waters.

-- EPA has drafted a plan to clean the Centredale Manor Superfund Site in North Providence, R.I. It outlines multiple long-term cleanup alternatives for sediment, soil, surface water and groundwater contamination -- including portions of the Woonasquatucket River.

-- The agency said work has begun to remove contaminated sediment from the lower Passaic River adjacent to the Diamond Alkali Superfund site in Newark, N.J.

-- EPA plans to use natural processes to clean volatile organic compounds from ground water at the Tri-Cities Barrel Superfund site in Fenton, N.Y. It said the level and extent of contaminants are declining naturally.

-- It said Grimmel Industries, a Portsmouth, N.H., metal scrap recycler, faces a proposed $532,500 fine for allowing polluted stormwater to flow into the Piscataqua River.

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