Journalism in the Public Interest

As Pennsylvania Implements New Wastewater Rules, Some State Waterways Still Face Problems

Many of Pennsylvania’s waterways suffer from high levels of contaminants found in gas drilling wastewater. New state regulations are supposed to help, but their immediate effects are hard to gauge.


Image by Allan Foster.

A couple of weeks ago we wrote a story about the release of partially treated gas drilling wastewater into Pennsylvania’s rivers. The post highlighted an Associated Press analysis of data covering July 2009 through June 2010 and mentioned a new state rule that requires newly-built wastewater plants to meet higher treatment standards.

We wanted to know if those new standards are being met, so we asked the Department of Environmental Protection when any new plants might be built. Later that night, a spokeswoman for the DEP sent us a chart showing that a couple of dozen are planned or proposed. She also pointed out that two of about 20 existing plants on the list already meet the new regulations.

But that list was incorrect. In fact, only one plant satisfies the regulations. The other one listed is not yet built, and not even fully permitted, according to Larry Mostoller, president and CEO of Somerset Regional Water Resources, the company building the facility. (Jamie Legenos, the DEP spokeswoman, said that labeling this plant operational was a clerical mistake.)

Legenos could not give us an estimate of how long it may be before more plants are online. Mostoller said his plant could be operating by the summer of 2012. Another plant he is building, which he said is fully permitted and took two and a half years to get approved, should be running within a year.

Former DEP Secretary John Hanger, who left the department this week with the out-going governor, said focusing on when or how many plants may go online misses the big picture: that the state’s drinking water is safe and that gas drilling is producing far less wastewater than originally predicted, because drillers are reusing most of their wastewater. He said a monitoring network in rivers and drinking-water facilities ensures that contaminants do not reach high levels.

“This is why we can tell you that every drop of water that goes to a tap meets the standard,” he said. “And if it didn’t we would immediately notify the public.”

The regulations were updated in August to require all new and expanding facilities treating oil and gas wastewater to remove Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), a measure of dissolved organic and inorganic materials such as salts and minerals, down to a concentration of 500 milligrams per liter (other industries have a higher limit).

Many of the state’s waterways suffer from high TDS levels that have harmed aquatic life and have occasionally contributed to health concerns at some drinking-water facilities, according to the official Pennsylvania Bulletin, where the new regulations were published. It says 17 drinking-water intakes on the Monongahela River are subject to high levels of one contaminant, “which result in increased risks of bladder cancer.” It also says TDS levels have contributed to a “shift in biotic communities” in some of the state’s rivers. The effects of TDS on human health depend on its components.

The EPA sets a guideline of 500 mg per liter for TDS as a “secondary standard,” meaning it may have aesthetic or cosmetic effects, such as tooth discoloration, but the agency lets states decide whether to enforce that guideline, which is included in the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Hanger said the Pennsylvania law sets its “trigger” at 375 mg per liter, so if TDS levels exceed that point downstream, DEP can compel any plant to reduce or halt its discharges. We were unable to verify with the department that this trigger applies to existing oil and gas wastewater facilities. Legenos pointed us to language applying the trigger to other industries and to a general statement that the law guarantees levels will not rise above 500 mg per liter.

John Baillie, senior attorney at the environmental group PennFuture, which worked to pass the regulations, said he’s not aware of a trigger in the law that applies to existing oil and gas wastewater facilities. He said the DEP does have the broad authority to limit wastewater discharges if the department decides they are contributing to pollution.

Hanger said the regulations allow the DEP to guarantee that Pennsylvania’s drinking water meets the EPA standard. But that doesn’t mean that the state’s waterways are in the clear.

“I think it’s fair to say in some cases they are less stressed and in some cases they’re probably about in the same position,” he said, compared to when TDS levels spiked in the Monongahela in 2008, corroding equipment at a steel mill and a power plant. “Problems on Monongahela have not gone away, but they’ve been less severe.”

The Monongahela’s TDS problem can’t be blamed entirely on gas drilling. Hanger said the water’s TDS content was high even before it entered the state, having passed through heavy mining areas in West Virginia. Runoff from mining and other industries contributes to TDS levels, although gas wastewater has particularly high concentrations of these salts and minerals.

The bulletin says other Pennsylvania rivers also have a limited ability to sustain new discharges containing high TDS levels.

Some have questioned whether the new rules go far enough to fully protect the state’s waterways. The regulation instructs the department to monitor levels as monthly averages and to allow for temporary spikes, which can be caused not only by increased discharges but also by low water levels. In its public comment on an early draft of the rule, the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper said that fluctuations in TDS levels can harm aquatic life.

Still, the new regulations were largely recognized as a victory for environmentalists.

“They weren’t as strong as first proposed, but that’s always the case,” said Jan Jarrett, PennFuture’s president and CEO. “Generally speaking we think that now that they’re in place and they’re in force, they’re adequate to protect the streams from the TDS.”

Carlos Briones

Jan. 21, 2011, 5:56 p.m.

When will ProPublica take on the issue of putting salt on the roads?  Road salt as a source of TDS is orders of magnitude larger than than what will be produced by gas drilling - and is not subject to regulation or monitoring.  I read an unsubstantiated figure that 22 million tons are put on the nations roads every year.

Given that current shale stimulation practices recycle over 93% of all fluids (and moving toward 100%), it seems that people concerned with TDS probably have more important sources to police.

Water contamination is not the only contamination resulting from hydraulic fracturing operations.  Very little is being said regarding the substantial air pollution from the drilling operations, open pits, truck traffic, etc.  This type of drilling has a huge environmental footprint that must be cleaned up via appropriate regulation and strict enforcement of those regulations to protect ALL life.

I am glad someone is saying something about the “beneficial waste” (highly concentrated brine) that the EPA says is OK to use on the roads. All of the cars are rusting at a rapid rate before their time is up. Is there anything else in the brine? Has it been tested? My car has 135,000 miles and will not pass another inspection in PA. The pdfs are on the EPA’s website for PA that tell you about the brine and the solid wastes. This flows away with water to the wetlands and eventually to our aquifers and to the Delaware River.

When I lived in Pennsylvania ten years ago, they were using a 50/50 mixture of “ash” from the german coal burning plants and salt on the roads..
Do not know if anywhere else than in the coal country of the Skuykill River watershed, but certainly was used around Hazelton etc…These German made plants/technology used to burn the ‘waste’ coal that previously was un sellable from the strip mining done in that area of Pa. Locals had mixed opinions on its safety. I do know that it certainly was not as effective on icey roads as straight salt.

Neshaminy Creek (Philadelphia area) is another example of a stream outside of the shale region that was illegally receiving frack wastewater for several months without the agency knowing it.  Folks should start calling their STPs to make sure they are not accepting frackwater.  With each gas well using an average of 4.5 million gallons of water and with 20-80% of that water coming back up to the surface contaminated….that’s a lot of water to deal with.  Let’s also remember, desalinization is expensive and energy intensive.  Consider that small clean tributary streams have TDS values usually less than 100 mg/l and then consider that frackwater is 5 times saltier than ocean water with TDS values often in the 300,000 mg/l range.  Thats some salty water!

The ‘fresh water’ which is being sent through the ‘fresh water’ pipelines to wells and between impoundment ponds is: frack water with four chemicals removed. The industry considers this to be ‘fresh water’; the brine and other contaminants remain; they say it is ‘treated’ and then reused and that it ‘IS from the Susquehanna’.  Right.  That is no way near what I would define as ‘fresh water’, not is it for most citizens, I believe.

The potential for spills of this water, pipeline breaks, impoundment pond faitures is huge.  And WILL happen.  The soil would no longer support crops, cows who have drunk this water have died.
There are so many areas to be concerned about that my head is swimming.

And, at least in PA, the best of the EPA officials are jumping from the state programs to work for the gas industry… money money.

Karen Granche

Feb. 2, 2011, 10:53 a.m.

Just remember this about recycled water. Although this results in less water going into treatment plants, by the time it gets there, it is even more heavily consentrated with TDS. Truck drivers have said that each time it is reused, they have to haul smaller amounts of it because of the weight limit restrictions.

Stephen Cleghorn

Feb. 3, 2011, 6:46 a.m.

TO Carlos Briones: please give us the source of your statement “Given that current shale stimulation practices recycle over 93% of all fluids (and moving toward 100%”

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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