New report shows that NY is not prepared to deal with toxic fracking wastewater, while PA needs new safeguards to protect against its risks

We have been saying for some time that New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has not adequately considered how to manage the potentially billions of gallons of highly contaminated wastewater that would be generated should the state approve new high-volume fracking. We have argued that there are few palatable options for handling this toxic byproduct, and that it therefore poses serious risks to our water supplies and public health. A new report from NRDC confirms, on the basis of scientific assessment of Marcellus Shale wastewater data from neighboring Pennsylvania, that we have been right.

The upshot: unless and until the state takes this issue seriously and figures out whether, and if so how, these massive amounts of potentially toxic wastewater would be managed, it cannot responsibly move forward with proposed new fracking.

The report, titled “In Fracking’s Wake: New Rules Are Needed to Protect Our Health and Environment from Contaminated Wastewater,“ was jointly prepared by NRDC (legal/policy analysis) and Carnegie Mellon professor of civil and environmental engineering, Jeanne VanBriesen (scientific/technical analysis). As described more fully by my colleague, Rebecca Hammer, it analyzes the problem of wastewater generated from fracking, particularly with regard to the Marcellus Shale region. It shows that, while fracking generates huge quantities of polluted wastewater – threatening the health of drinking water supplies, rivers, streams, and groundwater – federal and state regulations have not kept pace and must be significantly strengthened to reduce the risks of fracking throughout the Marcellus region and nationwide.

The report evaluates the five primary methods of fracking wastewater management – recycling for additional fracking, treatment and discharge to surface waters, underground injection, storage in open air pits, and spreading on roads for ice or dust control – and concludes that current rules at the federal and state level are inadequate to protect health and the environment.  While with improved safeguards some may be more desirable than others (e.g., recycling and deep well injection), none is without real impacts (e.g., energy intensive processing and concentrated residual waste for recycling, earthquakes for injection). Some approaches are so risky, e.g., road spreading and treatment at publicly owned treatment works, they should be outright banned.

Moreover, the report makes clear that the wastewater problem – while of significance nationally – is particularly vexing in the Marcellus Shale region. This is largely due to the fact that underground injection, the preferred disposal method in most of the country, is thought to be geologically unavailable in most of Pennsylvania and New York. As a consequence, most of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus wastewater has been being discharged into surface water bodies that serve as public drinking water supplies after treatment at publicly and privately owned treatment facilities. Treatment at publicly owned facilities over the past several years had created significant water quality issues, as a result of which the state requested that the practice be ended. The report concludes this approach should be categorically taken off the table.

Currently, significant quantities of Pennsylvania’s wastewater are being shipped out of state for deep well injection in Ohio, which may have its own concern about becoming the region’s “dumping ground,” and which carries with it the risk of earthquakes if not better regulated. It also means massive amounts of truck traffic, often on narrow, country roads. Some additional wastewater is being used for dust suppression or ice removal through road spreading – another option that should be flat out prohibited because of its risks to groundwater quality. The rest is being managed in a handful of industrial waste treatment facilities or through recycling. As the report indicates, both of these approaches themselves raise questions and concerns (including regarding the energy intensity of treatment technologies and what becomes of concentrated residual waste) that need to be better addressed through further research and tighter regulation.

In our comments on New York’s revised draft environmental review (the RDSGEIS), we stressed that the threats presented by huge quantities of contaminated wastewater from proposed new fracking had not been sufficiently considered by DEC, and argued that the state could not legally – or responsibly – move forward with its fracking proposal unless and until it did so and developed a comprehensive wastewater management plan.

Toxic fracking waste is exempt from federal and state rules for hazardous waste. We have long urged that critical first steps are for the state repeal to its regulatory exemption and for EPA to write new rules so that the waste becomes subject to the full cradle-to-grave regulatory program that applies to hazardous waste generated by any other industry.

This new report underscores the urgency of this point, and reiterates why it would be so foolhardy for New York to start permitting new fracking without having given due consideration to where and how the massive amounts of polluted wastewater will end up.

Pennsylvania, in the meantime, has much more work to do to bring its own rules into line with the report’s recommendations if it is going to adequately protect the public and environment.