2010-06-24 / Local & State

Key Approval Given To Pa. Drilling Wastewater Rule

By Marc Levy ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – A key piece of the state’s approach to controlling water pollution from Pennsylvania’s fast-expanding natural gas drilling activity cleared a major hurdle Thursday.

The Independent Regulatory Review Commission voted 4-1 over the objections of the gas industry to approve the Rendell administration’s proposal to prevent pollutants in briny drilling wastewater from further tainting public waterways and household drinking water. State environmental officials say too much of the pollutants can kill fish and leave an unpleasant salty taste in drinking water drawn from rivers.

“Drilling wastewater is incredibly nasty wastewater,’’ state Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger said after the vote at the panel’s public meeting. “If we allow this into our rivers and streams, all the businesses in Pennsylvania will suffer ... all those who drink water in Pennsylvania are going to be angry and they would have every reason to be, and all of those who fish and love the outdoors are going to say, ‘What did you do to our fish and our outdoors?’’’

The vote comes at the beginning of what is expected to be a gas drilling boom in Pennsylvania. Exploration companies, armed with new technology, are spending billions to get into position to exploit the rich Marcellus Shale gas reserve, which lies underneath much of the state.

The rule would put pressure on drillers to reuse the wastewater or find alternative methods to treat and dispose of the brine, rather than bringing more truckloads of it to sewage treatment plants that discharge into waterways where millions get drinking water.

The rule is designed to take effect Jan. 1. However, the Republican-controlled Senate, a key counterweight to Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, could delay that if it votes to oppose the rule.

The drilling industry, as well as a range of business groups and owners, opposes the rule, calling it costly, confusing, arbitrary and rushed during more than three hours of testimony before the regulatory review commission.

Some, including a representative of the state’s coal industry, said they were worried about how it would affect different industries that also produce polluted water.

Water utilities, environmental advocates and outdoor recreation groups lined up behind it.

With drilling companies poised to sink thousands of wells in Pennsylvania, state environmental officials worried that its waterways would become overwhelmed with pollutants. They began writing the new rule last year.

Conventional sewage treatment plants and drinking water treatment plants are not equipped to remove the sulfates and chlorides in the brine enough to comply with the rule.

In addition, the chlorides can compromise the ability of bacteria in sewage treatment plants to break down nitrogen, which can be toxic to fish, environmental officials say.

Currently, a portion of the massive amounts of brine being generated by well drilling is entering the state’s waterways through sewage treatment plants, and that flow would be unaffected by the rule.

Once the rule takes effect, a treatment plant would have to get state approval to process additional amounts of drilling wastewater beyond what it already is allowed, or ensure that it was pretreated by a specialized method that removes sulfates and chlorides.

Hanger said no other industry will be affected and he has worked to incorporate the concerns of business groups that have had more than a year to scrutinize the administration’s plans. The companies, he said, are making more than enough money to pay for alternative treatment methods.

“There’s plenty of money to do this the right way,’’ Hanger said. “But, of course, if you let an industry do it the wrong way, the low-cost way, they will run with it, they will take it. They’re not going to be volunteers.’’

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